An overloaded truck with logs from a Timas Resources' concession waits near the Mekong River on Route 6, north of Phnom Penh.
here are not many issues on which the government, donors and NGOs agree, but
here are two: the forestry sector is badly in need of reform; and now is a particularly
sensitive time for outspoken comment.
It is on the scale of reform that opinions differ most. The government's refrain
is that everything is on track and maintains it is committed to good governance and
transparency. Donors agree generally with the government's assessment, although they
had some criticisms after a donor working group meeting with government September
27. They concede that progress has not been as quick as they would have liked.
NGOs take a stronger line. They say the current forestry reform agenda is fatally
flawed since it is 'reforming' the concession logging system in an effort to have
a sustainable logging sector.
And the donors are under no illusions about the way concession logging has been run
to date: the Asian Development Bank's resident representative, Urooj Malik, described
past management practices as 'a total system failure'.
Environmental NGO Global Witness reckons the concessionaires should have had their
contracts canceled and the entire process re-started. Other observers question whether
the country should even allow concession logging.
Disputes between government, donors and NGOs are nothing new, but the stakes in the
complex tussle that is forestry reform are high. Most at risk in the management of
the forests are the rural poor. If the reform effort is botched, the result will
be a terrible irony - the current process is a central pillar of the strategy to
One reason behind the slow progress is that pressure on the government to implement
forestry reform has eased as other initiatives have risen to dominate the agenda.
Judicial reform, the commune elections and the Khmer Rouge trials are jut some of
the issues that have lowered its profile.
Only a few years ago donors had visions of a sustainable logging sector worth between
$50-$100 million a year. They now admit that, in an industry that produces a mere
$10 million annual revenue, ensuring good revenue flow over the next couple of years
will come second to getting in place good law.
NGOs say that as the World Bank's reforms were based on the industry's projected
worth amounting to ten times its actual value, the entire basis on which reforms
have been based is now in question.
"Maybe it's about time to look into who needs the forest and what's actually
good for the people in this country and not focusing on export data," says Global
A remarkably high proportion of Cambodia's population lives in rural areas. The 2000
Demographic and Health Survey classifies 84 percent of Cambodians as rural. The 1999
Cambodia Socio-Economic Survey stated that 40.1 percent of the rural population live
Any increase in rural poverty could have severe effects, as the latest Cambodia Development
Research Institute report, released in August, makes clear:
"(T)he proportion of people living below the poverty line is still high, especially
in rural areas ... The number of people unable to earn a living in rural areas is
rising, and, as a result, migration to already-overcrowded Phnom Penh is increasing."
The results of unsustainable logging are common the world over: increased flooding,
increased drought, a reduction in water quality, soil erosion, siltation of rivers
and dams, ruined crops, a loss of biodiversity and the destruction of local people's
livelihoods. The burden of these consequences falls mainly on the poor.
Tine Feldman, team leader of the natural resources management team at UNDP, says
that unsustainable logging is having a detrimental impact on natural resources and
"Such practices lead to negative impacts such as soil erosion, which in turn
negatively influence both the overall quality of land and also lakes and rivers through
salination and siltation," she says.
Andrew Cock, forest policy consultant at the NGO Forum, says the rural poor rely
heavily on forests for subsistence food as well as forest products such as resin,
rattan, vines and medicines. The land is often used as grazing land for cattle, while
spiritual beliefs relating to forests are important to many.
"People throughout rural Cambodia use forests as a form of social insurance.
It acts as a buffer for when they lose access to other income earning streams, for
example, a low rice yield due to drought or flooding," he explains. "A
forest in the vicinity of where they live would be used as a resource pool on which
to subsist until conditions improve."
To date there have been very few studies on the rural poor and their reliance on
forests. The World Food Program recently released a study on the potential decline
of food security among the population. In its introduction, the organization noted
that "studies ... show a significant dependency on forests by communities for
a variety of food and non-food needs".
The results showed that 45 percent of the country's population suffered "high
potential physical forest loss". In other words, almost half Cambodia's population
has faced, or could face, problems associated with forest loss.
Cock says it is fundamental to examine whether the current system of concession-based
forest management is even appropriate to Cambodia in terms of achieving the government's
planned objectives in meeting its development targets.
"Does [the system] achieve poverty alleviation? No, because the revenue generated
is so small. Does it conserve the resources? No, because there is no indication that
concessionaires have or will have any incentive for long or even medium term management
of that resource."
"Environmentally the impacts are obvious, so the question is: Why have this
system and why promote it?" he asks. "There are a lot of other products
that villagers get from the forests."
"I have seen predictions that Cambodia will be a timber importer in ten or fifteen
years. What will happen in terms of housing for most people? It makes no sense to
export timber on any large scale," he says. "This idea of converting it
all to plywood and shipping it out, and then in ten years time needing to import
it, is quite astonishing."
The forestry sector has long been a byword for corruption, intimidation and undue
political influence. There are numerous reports of widespread illegal logging, non-payment
of royalties by concessionaires, theft of village land, and even the murder of villagers
by concessionaires' security guards.
The new forestry law, says the DFW, will regulate the industry and should be ready
early next year. Other changes include renegotiating the contracts of the concessionaires,
improving monitoring and prosecution of forest crimes, and better communication between
the various ministries and agencies.
"This will create a structure to ensure sustainable forest management. It will
also develop a strategy to provide the kind of evidence needed to bring some concessionaires
to court if it came to that," says Dennis Cengel, an advisor to the Department
of Forestry and Wildlife (DFW).
Cengel's optimism is not shared by some observers, but most are unwilling to comment
publicly about the chances of improvement under the new law. The process is, one
explains, at a very sensitive stage:
"My opinion is that legislation is not the underlying issue - the problems are
political and institutional. So I would not expect that just because you have a new
law which in some senses is more comprehensive than other laws, that you will get
some fundamental change on how the forest sector is governed. The old law was inadequate
in some respects but it could have been used as a tool to stop much of what occurred."
A lack of political will is a common complaint, but there are others. One is that
there is no clear line of responsibility between government ministries. Another is
the fact that many concessions are guarded by the military - which in some areas
also suppresses forest crimes. This has helped ensure the impunity of concessionaires.
Paring down the competing interests is an important part of the new reforms, says
Cengel. By early next year the streamlined process will strictly define where responsibility
lies in all areas - from enforcement of cutting quotas and investigation of forest
crimes to the sharing of information.
The Forest Crimes Monitoring Unit (FCMU) is part of the DFW, and in partnership with
Global Witness records and passes on evidence of forest crimes. These range from
concessionaires felling trees outside their allotted area to intimidation of villagers
and the cutting of resin trees, a critical source of income for many villagers.
The lack of efficient investigation of forest crimes has long been a problem. UNDP's
Feldman says the UNDP strongly supports the reform measures and regards a viable
system that deals with forest crimes as a priority.
The ADB's Malik says solving forest crimes goes deeper than merely canceling cutting
"It involves the whole chain, starting with the political will and the commitment
of the government. Then there is all of these players working in concert with each
other, namely the FCMU, the role of Global Witness as an independent monitor, the
cooperation of the DFW, the assistance of the Department of the Environment. Ultimately
it involves the Council of Ministers making the decisions, if there are crimes, on
how to tackle them," he says.
There are still problems involved with forest crimes monitoring itself. The government's
forest crimes monitoring report covering the first half of 2001, complains that the
sub-decree under which the unit operates "has many loopholes and insufficient
punishment effecting abuse of law without fear".
"If that is the case," says Malik, "then obviously we need to look
at that quickly. Clearly the laws that govern forest crimes are important on paper,
but more important in practice."
"The process we are trying to develop here has a number of different elements,"
says Cengel. "The first one is to renegotiate with the 17 concessionaires. The
initial meetings we had with them [in September] were to determine if they would
agree to the new Model Forest Concession Agreement. In some cases that was the case
immediately and in other cases they wanted to fight against us."
GAT's concession logging area in Kampong Thom Province.
Cengel says that future negotiations will iron out these differences. A second part,
he says, is to develop management plans for the concessionaires to improve their
performance. He says that the need to have high quality management plans had contributed
to the dashed expectations of the donors.
Donors and NGOs were under the impression that the concessionaires' forest management
plans were meant to have been delivered and approved by the end of last month.
Under the revised timetable - about which donors were not told - the DFW required
each concessionaire merely to let the department know how they were going to fulfill
their management plans. The DFW presented this as progress. Donors and NGOs expected
Steven Schonberger, senior operations officer at the World Bank, said donors were
disappointed. Although the World Bank understood this was a difficult process, it
wanted faster progress.
"[The government is] currently operating under the provisions of the old framework,"
said Schonberger. "We are very interested in seeing that transition happen as
soon as possible, because these new laws provide a reasonable framework for forest
Global Witness says that talk of meaningful reform has been exposed as hollow by
concessionaires, who have had two years and almost three cutting seasons to get their
house in order, but have done little about it. The organization doubts whether most
concessionaires are even interested in sustainable logging.
"It is a bit cheap to use the same arguments [about the lack of progress] as
they did almost three years ago, saying we have to believe in restructuring and the
good faith of a number of concessionaires. They did this already and it did not work
out," says the organization.
"In the meantime, the fact remains that these concessionaires are still logging
without a real management plan, like they did in 1995, 1996 and 1997, and the key
players are still there, and when it comes to on the ground operations there has
been no change during all this reform process."
"So if you have no change on the ground, and you have the same players doing
the same things with the same methods, then where is your forestry reform?"
asks Global Witness.
There is a further aspect to the donor interest in the forestry sector reform, and
that is the establishment of community forestry as a way to help improve the lot
of the rural poor. Work started on a new draft of the community forestry sub-decree
earlier this year, and a workshop will be held mid-October to discuss the next step.
UNDP's Feldman says her organization "strongly supports" the ongoing dialogue
on the sub-decree.
"Given [the level of poverty in rural areas] it is imperative to focus on how
to ensure local communities have access to their own livelihoods," she says.
UNDP is working with the government in several provinces to drive home the importance
of local community involvement.
Global Witness says giving communities the right to manage the forests is a logical
step, not least because they could hardly do a worse job than the 'free for all'
approach used by concessionaires.
"Based on our experience in the field, we don't really see the concessionaires
are protecting the forest," says the organization. "So if you make sure
that concession land is not grabbed by rich individuals for land concessions, and
if you involve the communities and give them a little bit more authority and ownership
of the areas, then it seems to be the logical way forward right now."
Andrew Cock at NGO Forum says that community forestry is an important component of
any longer term strategy for governing the country's forest resources, including
those old growth forests essential to small communities that rely on resin.
"There is a recognition that communities have an important stake in the management
of resources in the sense that people rely upon those resources," he says. However,
he warns that the speed at which the government moves away from the concession system
The ADB is more optimistic. "The ultimate benefits of the community forestry
sub-decree and its implementation are enormous," says ADB's Malik. "And
that, we believe, is the future of Cambodia: to provide for community-based management
of natural resources - not just forestry, but fisheries as well. Communities depend
a lot on natural resources, and the nexus between poverty, natural resources and
good governance is extremely strong."
"Agriculture is the real backbone of Cambodia," he continues. "We
must take a balanced view of market-oriented agricultural production and diversification,
and community-based management of natural resources. In other words there are certain
areas where it is better to have communities manage the forest resources, whereas
there are other areas that can be commercially exploited. We must strike a balance
between the two."
The government and donors are still generally upbeat about forestry reform. DFW's
Cengel says that once finished, the various departmental bodies will be in a position
to pass on information to the government. At that point, he says, the government
will have to prove its good faith.
Historically, good faith has been lacking. Donors and NGOs stress that without political
will to enforce forestry reform - and long-delayed reform of the judiciary to ensure
it is both independent and competent - the exercise will amount to very little.
Ultimately, says one observer, true reform of the forestry sector will prove difficult:
the financial interests of powerful people combine with the fact that most logging
concessions are in remote areas, which hampers monitoring.
The coming months will show whether the carrot and stick of donor funding will coincide
with genuine will to improve the state of Cambodia's forests and, more importantly,
the lives and livelihoods of the people who depend on them. All parties agree that
responsibility for that lies squarely with the government.