Despite a recent statement by Prime Minister Hun Sen that illegal logging has been “eliminated,” participants at a conference at the Ministry of Agriculture this week said the illegal trade is cutting deeply into the livelihoods of local people.
“Timber companies destroyed the forest,” said Roth Im, a villager from Kratie province, told the National Workshop on Community Forestry at the Ministry of Agriculture.
“Our livelihood, especially related to resin trees, is affected by timber companies and anarchic elements.
“We don’t know what to rely on if the forest and rattan are gone. Sometimes the villagers were banned from going into the forest because [the loggers] said they bought the forest.”
Roth Im was among 300 villagers, government officials and NGO workers from across the country who gathered at the two-day conference to discuss community forestry issues. A sub decree governing community forestry is now being drafted by the Ministry of Agriculture and a draft forestry law was recently completed.
Tim Teep, a hill tribe villager from Ratanakkiri, said illegal logging near her home offends local beliefs in the neak ta, or forest spirit.
“There was logging in the spirit forest [and also] mining,” she said. “These actions have angered the spirits, making some villagers fall sick.
“They cut down big trees, but also destroy small trees and bamboo.”
A conservationist working in the province said police and military are carrying out illegal logging in an area designated by the governor for a community forestry program.
The conservationist, who asked not to be named, said the loggers are removing “two to three trucks a night” of timber.
A Forestry Department official who helped organize the event said he welcomed critical comments from community groups.
“I think this is a good chance for people to raise those problems,” said Ly Chon Beang, deputy chief of the reforestation office.
But he said local people still need guidance from authorities on how best to manage forests.
“I understand about the capacity of local people,” he said. “They are still limited. They have low education. They need to improve their knowledge, even if they have traditional knowledge.”
But Hans Helmrich, an adviser to the Department of Forestry, said local people have always managed the land in Cambodia. The problem is that authorities have never recognized their rights and capacities.
Officials frequently ask “‘How can communities take decisions? They don’t know anything about forestry,’” Helmrich said. “That’s an assumption that has to be corrected.
“When you talk to local people, they…can tell you the properties of the leaves, of the bark, the medicinal values of hundreds of plants.
“That’s far beyond what you can learn at university.”
A large, centralized system focused on logging concessions is not a viable way of managing the country’s forests in the future, he said.
Donors are increasing pressure for the government to expand protected areas, and existing concessions will simply be logged out in years to come, Helmrich said.
“The private sector will no longer make big investments,” he said. “There aren’t enough big trees left.”
Patrick Evans of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization said community forestry won’t work unless authority over forests is decentralized.
Under an existing draft of the new forestry law, most decisions are made at the top, he said. If a community wants to apply for user rights in an area of forest to which they think they have a hereditary claim, they must apply to the head of the department.
“That’s not going to be workable,” Evans said. “It has to be done at the provincial level where people know what’s going on the ground.”