Environmental groups are questioning whether the government’s independent forestry watchdog has any bite after it praised the government’s much-criticized fight against illegal logging in a report last week.
“We haven’t seen the government really acting on [illegal logging],” said Albert Weinmann, project coordinator for Lutheran World Federation, which works with villagers in the Aural Wildlife Sanctuary.
“If any of the problems have been resolved, I haven’t seen it,” he said Sunday.
Societe Generale de Surveillance, the Swiss accounting firm that took over the role of forest monitor from Global Witness almost two years ago, said in its fourth quarter report for 2004 the government’s Forestry Administration “took action in all cases verified by SGS.”
In a three-month period that saw villagers injured in a grenade attack while protesting against timber giant Pheapimex in Pursat, a government investigation into plantation company Green Rich’s activities in Botum Sakor National Park and reports of continued illegal logging around the country, SGS project manager Robert Tennent said Sunday it was a “slow quarter” in which “nothing stood out.”
“We’ve been pleased with the way things have fallen into place,” Tennent said.
In October, the administration investigated 79 cases and in November there were 67 cases, the report said. There were no numbers for December.
Tennent said SGS had been extremely busy since October preparing for the controversial lifting of the government-imposed moratorium on the transport of old logs.
As a result, SGS did not conduct border-crossing or port checks to see whether timber was being taken out of the country.
“It’s a matter of resources,” Tennent said. “We have a list of things to do. [Border and port checks] are one of those tasks we have to do, but it’s low priority.”
On Jan 24 several companies started transporting what will eventually be a total of 3,507 logs cut prior to the 2001 moratorium. Tennent said there is no “precise timetable” for when all the logs will be moved.
The report, which was first presented to the government for “review and discussion” in mid-January and made public Friday, said SGS made four random checks in the last three months of last year to confirm the number of logs that companies said were eligible for transport.
The report said the Forestry Administration had noted “widespread illegal forest encroachment by villagers.”
It was often impossible to say whether it was the villagers or the concessionaires and loggers who were encroaching on the land because, Tennent said, as the villagers had often been removed by the time SGS arrived.
“[The Forestry Administration] report to us it’s the villagers,” he said. “By the time we get there, there’s no one there.”
He said one reason is that it often takes SGS one to two months to learn of a case from the Forestry Administration, which he added is half the time it used to take.
The report also stated that SGS felt the massive Pheapimex concession straddling Pursat and Kompong Chhnang provinces was a “true plantation operation, and not a form of disguised logging” that had experienced “some land encroachment by local villagers.”
For months, villagers have been protesting against Pheapimex’s two contiguous land concessions, totaling 315,000 hectares, saying the concession covers their land.
Tennent said he was also happy to see the Ministry of Environment beginning to report its cases to SGS, and that the Forestry Administration had adopted eight of 12 recommendations put to it by the monitor in previous months—such as providing records in electronic format, providing timely reports to SGS for review and preventing cross border logging in Virachey National Park.
However, Weinmann of LWF repeated concerns made in previous years about SGS’s methods of investigation and whether the report truly reflects the government’s efforts to curb illegal logging, or merely what the government wants SGS to see.
“They didn’t get much of their own information,” he said, referring to the vast amount of information from the Forestry Administration quoted in the report. “It’s not enough to just monitor.”
Marcus Hardtke of Global Witness also noted that SGS appeared to be taking the government’s reports at face value. He said illegal logging and other activities are getting worse in Cambodia and said the watchdog isn’t helping curb the increase.
“SGS is not reducing forest crime in the country,” he said Sunday.
“There is no investigation, there is no analysis,” he added. “The monitor acts like an internal affairs department. If the internal affairs department only looks into what the office tells it to, of course it won’t find anything.”
Ty Sokhun, chief of the Forestry Administration, said Sunday that he was unaware of the SGS’ fourth quarter report and would comment on it after he reviews it today.