When International Monetary Fund representatives announced in November 1996 that they were canceling $20 million in loans—making the announcement shortly before flying out of the country
—there was no question what message was being delivered.
For years, the IMF had pressured the government to rein in rampant logging across the country. But without results, the financial institution was left with little choice but to leave.
“We asked the government to modify its forest policy in July, [but] unfortunately there has been much less action than we would have hoped,” Michael Kuhn, then-assistant director of the IMF Central Asian department, said in 1996 at Phnom Penh International Airport.“The commitments and the words must be matched with deeds and with concrete actions.”
Several years later, the IMF returned, but only after donors and the government agreed to set up an independent forestry monitor.
The London-based NGO Global Witness, hired in 1999, reported aggressively, rankling government officials and continuing to report even after it was fired as monitor by the government in 2003.
Now, after the government denied entry this week to one Global Witness official and ordered the banning of several others, the question is whether the group can continue its reporting, and whether donors remain concerned about forestry in Cambodia.
For the IMF and other donors in the 1990s, the issue wasn’t that trees were being cut in Cambodia; the issue was how they were being cut and who was benefiting.
Throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s, the government and the Khmer Rouge regime logged Cambodia’s once verdant forests as an easy source of cash.
Whole swaths were cut in such a way that different groups warned what could be a sustainable source of income for the country would be depleted in a matter of years.
According to an Oxfam GB report published in 2000, Cambodia’s tree cover dropped from 73 percent in 1960 to between 35 and 50 percent in 2000.
In addition the majority of logging operations were never taxed and the state-and average Cambodians-saw little benefit.
“Tax collection of logging was very low,” Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development, said Wednesday. “It was a very big source of corruption. Instead of going to the state treasurer, it went into the pockets of individuals.”
In fact, according to an Asian Development Bank report in 2000, revenue dropped through the mid-1990s despite the doling out of more concessions that covered millions of hectares of land.
Before it was hired as the independent forestry monitor, Global Witness had reported for years on corruption within the logging industry, preparing scathing reports that often implicated top government officials.
As monitor, Global Witness and the government were often in conflict with each other, with the environmental group releasing more reports blaming the government for ongoing corruption in the industry.
The conflict escalated when the government threatened to throw the NGO out of the country following the release of a scathing report one day before a donor-government meeting in January 2001.
“There is no love lost between us,” government spokesman Khieu Kanharith admitted Wednesday. “They systematically attack the government and politicize the issue.”
But international pressure to deal with illegal logging continued to mount and in December 2001, the premier announced a moratorium on logging, which had been recommended by donors in June.
Still, Global Witness reported that illegal logging was continuing. In July 2002, the group released a report that slammed government officials for failing to take action on any illegal logging.
Hun Sen fired Global Witness during a donor meeting in January 2003, a month after he accused it of fabricating evidence of police abuse to embarrass the government, though he stopped short of throwing it out of the country.
A Swiss accounting firm, Societe Generale de Surveillance, was appointed the government’s new forestry monitor in July 2003 with a new mandate to review Forestry Administration efforts to fight illegal logging rather than conduct investigations.
Over the years, attention has drifted away from logging and is now focused on economic land concessions and land grabbing, partially because of the lack of progress toward forestry reform, several diplomats said Wednesday.
“We pulled out of forestry because we felt there was not enough progress,” said one diplomat. “We thought in spite of all our efforts, it was a waste.”
The World Bank announced this year it is reviewing its controversial $5.4-million forest concession management project, which allows logging companies to manage tracts of forest.
“It’s still a very big issue,” Chea Vannath said.
SGS’s reports on the government’s response to illegal logging have been criticized by various NGOs while Global Witness has continued to publish critical reports on forestry crime.
Global Witness also continued providing information to donors about forestry issues and illegal logging.
“They help the donors on forestry,” the diplomat said. “We think they do important work.”
On Monday, German national and Global Witness official Marcus Hardtke was refused entry into the country.
An immigration official confirmed that Ministry of Foreign Affairs Secretary of State Long Visalo issued a letter dated June 28 barring Hardtke and four other Global Witness officials from entering the country.
No official reason has been given and Ministry of Foreign Affairs staff could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Khieu Kanharith said he was not aware of the reason for the ban.
The diplomat said donors are concerned about the visa ban and are following the situation closely.
British Ambassador David Reader said Wednesday he had met with and was discussing the situation with Global Witness but could not provide further information.
Jon Buckrell of Global Witness said in a statement on Tuesday that the organization is intent on continuing to fight.
“Obviously the visa ban is annoying, but it won’t stop us working on Cambodia; after 10 years focusing on illegal logging, we intend to broaden our remit to include other aspects of institutionalized corruption,” wrote Buckrell.