The National Assembly on Monday established a government office with broad power to control logging issues in Cambodia, despite complaints from environmentalists that the arrangement may make it easier for logging companies to subvert laws.
The so-called Forest Administration will control virtually all aspects of forest management and have the authority to inspect logging operations of the 15 timber companies in Cambodia.
The administration will work under the authority of the Ministry of Agriculture, according to the draft law under debate at the National Assembly.
Plans to create the Forest Administration were criticized by officials at Global Witness, the UK-based environmental group, which said the central authority would be immune from checks and balances that create open government.
Global Witness was appointed by the government in 1999 to monitor logging in Cambodia after the International Monetary Fund made a government watchdog a requirement for additional loans.
At the assembly Monday, several lawmakers used the debate of the draft forestry law to open criticism of forestry mismanagement and illegal logging.
Funcinpec lawmaker Klok Buddhi said he spotted a procession of motor barges moving logs on underwater harnesses along the Tonle Sap river last week, despite the government’s ban on transportation of logs from forest concessions in May.
Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Monh Siyon praised the government for its decision last week to kick the second-largest logging company operating in Cambodia, Grand Atlantic Timber International of Malaysia, out of the country for illegal logging.
He said a heavy fine should also be levied against the company for violating the nationwide moratorium on logging that began Jan 1.
Several lawmakers also demanded that the government open up to the public the contracts of each of the forest concessionaires operating in Cambodia.
Klok Buddhi asked specifically for the contract of the Koh Rung project—a planned resort near Sihanoukville—saying he welcomed the development but wanted to know the terms of the lease.
“Can the parliament know what they are doing with the investors? We have nothing to fear if we are doing good for the nation,” he said.
Lawmakers also blamed uncontrolled logging for causing devastating floods in recent years.
But Minister of Agriculture Chan Sarun said it is not only logging that causes the floods, claiming other factors must be considered such as rising sea levels, climate change, higher soil levels in rivers and irregular water levels in the Mekong River.
A study last year found that flooding cost the government more money than it received in royalties from the logging operations, leading to the current moratorium. The moratorium will be lifted after the logging companies submit plans for sustainable logging in their concession areas.
GAT officials, meanwhile, have not been available for comment since it was announced that Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a subdecree forcing them from the country.
A spokesman for the Cambodian Timber Industry Association said on Monday that he has not yet heard from GAT officials about the termination of their contract.