Top regional officials of the World Bank met with the government Monday to express their concern over last week’s incident in which villagers demonstrating outside the Ministry of Agriculture’s Forestry Department were chased off and allegedly beaten by riot police.
“What happened last week in our eyes was unacceptable,” said Peter Stephens, regional communications manager for the bank based in Singapore.
“You can’t talk about participation and consultation on one hand and beat people who express their opinions on the other,” Stephens said.
The bank and forestry officials held a “frank and useful” meeting Monday afternoon, in which they discussed a number of issues around public disclosure and consultation on logging plans, bank public affairs officer Melissa Fossberg said Monday evening. She declined to provide more details.
Stephens acknowledged that the bank had not planned properly for its own role in granting access to forest management plans submitted by logging companies.
The bank agreed to put copies of the plans in its office library, but protests ensued when some plans were not available, maps were unreadable and the bank balked at making copies. More than 40 villagers from several provinces held a three-day-long vigil outside bank offices last month until they received copies.
“We need to be much clearer and more specific by what we mean” by such terms as disclosure and consultation with affected communities, Stephens said.
Before the meeting Monday, Stephens said bank officials would press the government for more specifics on provincial consultations now under way.
In an action plan agreed to by the bank and the government, officials promised to provide copies of the plans “for public disclosure and comment” to provincial governments, agriculture and environment bureaus and commune councils. The World Bank is the major funder of the government’s Forestry Department.
Forestry watchdog Global Witness has called on the bank to withhold a $15 million loan it has already delayed pending public disclosure of the plans, and a $5 million loan intended to help the government evaluate the plans. Stephens said it was too early to tell if the violence would cause the halt of either loan.
The bank must review the “legal issue” of whether the government has fulfilled its obligation to disclose the plans, he said.
Nearly 200 villagers who had come to Phnom Penh to submit comments on the plans stood outside the Forestry Department for four days last week, demanding a workshop with forestry and logging company officials.
On Thursday evening police arrived and allegedly used truncheons and electric batons to disperse the villagers.