Environmentalists and community representatives are criticizing the World Bank for continuing to support the forest concession system, which cedes control of more than a million hectares of Cambodia’s forest to companies repeatedly accused of forestry crimes.
The Bank’s $5.4 million Forest Concession Management and Control Pilot Project is the only donor project to continue to work on the concession system, which allows logging companies to manage tracts of forest contracted to them by the government.
And by working within a system widely hailed as unworkable, the Bank has helped keep the concession system going, and prevents other options from being tried, critics say.
“The World Bank’s technical assistance to the concession management system has tended to legitimize a corrupt system which is beyond repair,” said Russell Peterson, representative for NGO Forum of Cambodia, which has worked with those communities.
Bank representatives maintain that despite their project’s name, its focus is not to restart industrial logging, but rather to bring the rule of law and community accountability to the system that was in place when they and other donors got involved in forestry in Cambodia.
“The trouble is that when a major donor project in the forest sector is set up to promote forest management by logging companies, that sends a message that the smartest way to manage Cambodia’s forests is by logging,” said Mike Bird, country program manager for Oxfam Great Britain.
The Bank faces similar opposition to projects promoting industrial logging in other countries.
Communities and NGOs in the Democratic Republic of Congo are rallying against Bank involvement in plans to open some 60 million hectares of forest, an area larger than France, to logging companies.
In Cambodia, debate has hovered around concessions since the 1990s, when donors began getting involved in forestry.
In 2000, a study funded by the Asian Development Bank declared all logging companies in breach of their contracts with the government, noting illegal logging, failure to pay royalties and myriad human rights abuses.
Prime Minister Hun Sen subsequently banned logging while companies prepared plans for sustainably managing concessions, a World Bank-funded process that is ongoing.
Most recently, the Bank project’s review of 25-year forest management plans has recommended six companies for government approval.
If the government approves the six plans, logging companies will move to the five-year planning step, and, once those are approved, could resume logging.
Community members and NGOs have condemned the recommended plans for widespread inaccuracies, clear plagiarism between plans, and for trampling the rights of communities.
The plans set aside as community forest tracts that are actually agricultural land, scrubland and already-logged forest, according to comments from 1,579 people in 13 communes in and near the concessions, collected in August by NGO Forum of Cambodia and Oxfam Great Britain.
The plans include logging within sacred forests and cutting of resin trees, which are tapped by villagers for income and are protected by law, communities said. Companies also plan to restrict access to concession forest and roads.
The Bank maintains that these controversial details will be dealt with in the five-year plans, which will include more extensive community consultations.
In response to the maelstrom of criticism, the Bank issued a series of statements in August defending its project.
“[W]e need to clarify that the World Bank is not calling for the acceptance of those six plans…Nor are we actively supporting the companies. What the Bank did was support a process in which the concession companies had to prepare and disclose their plans for operating the concessions,” said Peter Stephens, communications manager for East Asia and the Pacific region, in an Aug 23 statement.
Stephens said the government bears the responsibility for final approval on the plans, and is waiting to receive the results of a separate, donor-funded independent review of the plans before approving any.
“The critical thing, as we see it, is for concessions or any other system of forest management to operate within the law, in a way that benefits the people of Cambodia,” Stephens said in the statement.
Bird, the Oxfam country program director, and other critics have praised the Bank for its involvement in a difficult and corrupt sector, as well as for maintaining a dialogue with critics.
But the bulk of forestry experts, including an independent donor-funded review of the forestry sector, have argued that the whole system should be scrapped.
“If the bank was to choose to accept the message of the forest review, the logical thing to do would be to cancel the project,” Bird said.
“That won’t solve the problem if it just heads to a vacuum, but it would allow space for other management options to be tried out at a national level and receive the same level of support the Bank has given for concessions.”
Villagers, however, have little faith in the commitment of companies or the government to protect the rights of local people. At the end of 2002, police used electric batons to beat villagers who were protesting outside the Ministry of Agriculture to get officials to consider their comments on the first set of plans.
“Villagers do not want to allow concession guards into their villages and forest areas. In the past, they have threatened people with guns, hunted wildlife, used grenades to catch fish, raped women and shown no respect to villagers,” community members said in the report by NGO Forum and Oxfam GB.