Concern for the Future of Cambodian Forests Mounts

by AFP/Philippe Schwab, May 22, 2003 | Destinations: Cambodia / Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh - With 13 concessionaires waiting for Cambodia's government to approve the start of large-scale logging, international conservationists and donors fear for the future of the kingdom's forests.

"Cambodia is at a key moment. Either it chooses the sustainable management of this resource, or it privileges the short-term profits of a few," said Eva Galabru, a Cambodian-based representative of environmental watchdog Global Witness (GW). "Then the fear is that within three years, the last large forests of the country will be irremediably degraded."

The London-based GW was chosen by the government in 1999 at the request of donors to act as independent monitor of Cambodia's forest policy. Its mission was terminated on April 22 after GW was labelled "undesirable" for seriously criticising the government, following a protest by 200 villagers against forest plundering last December. GW reported that one demonstrator died following the forced dispersion of the gathering. No new independent observer has been named by Phnom Penh, despite repeated donor requests to do so.

Cambodia's forest cover dropped from 73 to 58 percent of the country's surface area between 1960 to 2000, according to figures from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation. The most intensive period of exploitation has occurred over most of the past 15 years, with the government offering logging concessions in 1994 until they were suspended last year.

But up to 94 percent of the total volume of logging has been illegal, according to the World Bank, meaning the government receives paltry royalties from the exploitation of its resources. Just six to 10 million dollars per year in logging revenue, or less than 2.5 percent of the state's budget, has been deposited in the public's coffers.

The abysmal record led to the International Monetary Fund temporarily disengaging from the country in 1997, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) concluding in 1999 that "total system failure" had occurred. "For donors, the effectiveness of forest policy to generate public resources has become an important indicator of good governance," programme director at the independent Cambodian Development Resource Institute, Bruce McKenney, told AFP.

Fearing the rapid exhaustion of forest resources, donors obtained a moratorium on logging in January 2002, which must run until "plans of sustainable development" presented last November by the 13 concessionaires are adopted by the government. The largest concessionaires are Cambodian, but also include Malaysian, Taiwanese and Chinese companies. The World Bank conditioned the granting of a structural adjustment loan of 15 million dollars to Cambodia on the adoption of the new forest policy.

"The donors are mistaken in considering that sustainable exploitation of Cambodian forests is compatible with the economic profitability of the concessionaires," said McKenney, who along with GW believes "they should consider other modes of exploitation of the forest".

Selective logging along with comprehensive gathering of forest products, managed at the commune level, would be more sustainable, environmentalists argue. Donors plan to undertake a thorough study of Cambodia's forestry, in order to "draw all the essential conclusions", said Urooj Malik, the ADB representative in Cambodia.

"We wish that the government keep the moratorium in place before this study, which could be launched at the end of May and should last from five to six months, is completed," Malik said.

Phnom Penh for its part is quick to assure its dedication to more sustainable forestry. "The government is committed to the pursuit of forestry reform," Cambodia's forestry department director Ty Sokun told AFP.

According to GW, the current moratorium is subject to "regular violations" by subcontractors of some concessionaires. Meanwhile the army "takes as its pretext the clearing of roads to exploit precious wood in a broad area," Galabru said.

King Norodom Sihanouk has been indignant on a number of occasions over the issue, hitting out at the looting of one of Cambodia's main natural resources. Recently he condemned the "increasingly complete deforestation in Cambodia... to profit private companies, which scorn and maltreat in a wretched way" Cambodian people, leaving them with "no more means of survival".

Some three million Cambodians, or about a quarter of the population which is among the poorest in the world, subsist on forest resources, GW estimates. However the concessionaires, who prior to the moratorium held rights to three million hectares of forests or a sixth of the country's total surface area, continue to prohibit "by armed force" villagers entering the forests, GW says.

The companies covet in particular dipterocarps, trees growing up to 60 metres (200 feet) tall that the villagers traditionally exploit for resin, and transfer ownership of from generation to generation. Typically sold as combustible fuel, the resin is rich in essential oils and has in recent years become sought after by the perfume industry.

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