Though the government has made strides in overhauling the forestry sector, reform is still hampered by corruption, ministerial bickering and an unwillingness to crackdown on illegal activity, environmental group Global Witness said in a report released today.
“In many respects, the Royal Government of Cambodia is the driving force behind the reform process, but lack of progress in certain key areas could undermine the government’s credibility,” said Jon Buckrell, Global Witness’ spokesman.
Considerable progress has been made since Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered a crackdown on illegal logging in January 1999, Global Witness says. In its report a year ago, the group had said it might be too late to prevent severe degradation of the country’s forests.
“The prospect of sustainable forest management in Cambodia would have been unthinkable two years ago,” the report states. “Now, it is a distinct possibility.”
Global Witness applauds the government’s efforts in creating the Forest Crime Monitoring Unit, drafting a new forestry law and negotiating new concession agreements and management plans.
Illegal activity that had dropped dramatically in 1999, however, climbed during the 2000 to 2001 logging season, the report states.
Global Witness, the independent forestry monitor since 1999, says the military controls much of the illegal logging, which is mostly being done inside and around legal concessions. Meanwhile, government officials are often involved in illegal logging or paid to turn a blind eye.
“What is needed is a government inquiry,” Buckrell said.
Ty Sokhun, director of the forestry department, said the report was irresponsible, based on second-hand information and written to mislead people who don’t know about the situation in Cambodia.
Acting Minister of Agriculture Chan Tong Yves declined to comment on the report, which is the first Global Witness has issued since January, when it ran afoul of Hun Sen by releasing a report just ahead of a donor meeting. Government officials said they had not been given enough time to respond to that report.
Chan Tong Yves wrote in a letter, which Global Witness attached to its press release, that he did not consider the new report official because it was sent before the new protocol was signed this week between the government and Global Witness. Briefing documents now must be submitted 15 working days before public release to enable the government to respond. Global Witness said the document was e-mailed to Chan Tong Yves on May 11, 20 working days prior to release.
To control corruption, the report recommends that officials declare all financial and familial links to the forestry industry.
The report also blames illegal logging on legal concessionaires. Henry Kong, chairman of the Cambodia Timber Industry Association, said such allegations are “unfair for [companies] who try to comply with the regulations.” He said he wished Global Witness and the judicial system would take these allegations to court “to prove whether they have been committed.”
Forest crime monitoring and reporting, the report states, is slowed by a lack of cooperation from the Ministry of Agriculture and its Forestry Department. The ministry staff appear reluctant to share information with the Ministry of Environment and Global Witness, the report says.
Kong said the situation is reflected in the field and the rivalry makes it difficult for timber companies at times to figure out who has jurisdiction.
The report also highlights ongoing problems between local communities and logging companies. According to Global Witness, the system of having companies set aside 10 to 20 percent of their harvest for local use does not work. Companies apply tax and royalties to it, making the price of timber prohibitive for people. This prompts them to log illegally, making law-abiding people commit crimes, the report says.
The Global Witness report recommends that the government formulate a long-term plan for managing Cambodia’s forests and use next week’s donors meeting in Tokyo as an opportunity to “restate its commitment” to cleaning up the forestry sector.
“Progress in forestry reform has been dramatic over the past two years,” Buckrell said. “By addressing the issues of corruption and increasing transparency, the government could significantly increase the pace of reform.”