Global Witness is, arguably, the single loudest voice in making Cambodian deforestation
known around the world since it came into being in London, January 1995. Now, three
years and 14 visits later, it says the situation is worse than ever. Matthew Grainger
asks the Global Witness founders: "How effective have you been?"
Only the sound-bites -"Does Hun Sen want to preside over a sand-pit?" -
are new. The story Global Witness tells remains a depressing yet familiar one.
However the founders of what is still a small operation headquartered in London -
Patrick Alley, Charmian Gooch and Simon Taylor - firmly believe they are on the right
"We're not a group that drops a campaign halfway through. We're in for the long
haul," says Taylor. Gooch points out that global campaigns - for instance, against
the ivory trade - have taken many years to evolve and popularize.
They say that the idea in Cambodia of forest preservation and sustainable use was
building momentum - from local communities, to key people among every level of civil
authority, and among local and foreign NGOs - but that largely stopped following
It will be difficult, they say, but not impossible to regain the momentum they believe
was recently there.
From its beginning, Alley says Global Witness "was looking to connect environmental
destruction with human rights abuses... how the exploitation of natural resources
affected a country.
"We were interested in Cambodia and there were parallels with other work we
From London, the three felt their way through a story that would come to involve
the Khmer Rouge (whose sustinence, largely from timber revenues, initially piqued
their interest), rapacious neighbors and timber buyers, rich logging companies, corrupt
politicians, disregarded laws, plus the World Bank, the IMF and other donors.
It is, of course, nothing more than day-to-day life for local communities; those
who, even more so today by Global Witness' own investigations, are seeing vast tracts
of their land eaten away by logging.
There are numerous grassroots projects helping local people, such as those fostering
community forestry, which are by necessity and design more circumspect in their operations
than the way Global Witness has chosen to work. Alley, Taylor and Gooch agree.
"But there is no single correct method of how to help," says Gooch. She
acknowledges the local NGOs working on forestry issues are doing superb work. Taylor
says many NGOs are better set up than Global Witness to work with local people "and
that's being done, and it absolutely has to happen". Alley adds that Global
Witness also works with local NGOs.
What they have been able to do, they say, is widely disseminate perhaps the most
comprehensive documentation of logging in Cambodia. They offer this information to
anyone to use as they wish.
Global Witness has used it to generate plenty of publicity about Cambodian logging.
The group travels within both Thailand and Cambodia using assumed identities as timber
buyers. With hidden cameras they have recorded evidence on some of the biggest buyers,
sellers and cutters of forest. They have satellite map coordinates of log stockpiles
and the routes of illegally-felled logs.
Alley says they don't like talking about the danger they face from their methods.
"We don't want to appear gung-ho because we certainly aren't. If you ask whether
we feel scared: yes. But really it's 60% tedium - it often takes a long time to get
to the places we're going - 25% feeling bloody scared; and 15% elated that 'Yes!
We've got something we can use'.
"If there has been one thing we'd have liked to have done - but because we were
so small I doubt logistically we could have - we'd have liked to have got the message
about these problems to the Cambodian people," he says.
"The awareness we have raised in the larger international community could have
been better complemented had the Cambodian people been made more aware."
"We were just three people with limited resources," says Taylor. "We've
tried to be well-focused but there have been gaps."
Global Witness' initial aim was to get the Thai-Cambodian border closed to deprive
the Khmer Rouge of logging revenue. Alley describes that eventual closure in May
1995 as one of the group's "extremely tangible successes", a direct result
of their lobbying in Washington. It could well have been a factor in the mass defection
of Phnom Malai and Pailin that later followed, "and that was a positive thing,"
"The laws and forestry policy reform in 1996 and 1997 - that wouldn't have happened
without our work.
"The World Bank technical assistance project and [the arrival of] international
technocrats - that wouldn't have happened without our work.
"They were successes we could never have dreamed to achieve.
"However, I fully appreciate there are more trees being cut now, but that's
because of a coterie of gangsters at the top. We can only try."
Taylor says: "We never wanted to stop people making money from, or using timber.
If the management of resources is utilized for the benefit of the country, local
people would be able to use wood without wrecking the place."
Alley, Taylor and Gooch quickly found that they had a knack for international lobbying,
especially with the publicity they were able to generate. Early in their work they
discovered doors, particularly those in Washington, opened.
"As Western taxpayers," Alley says, "we didn't feel donors should
be underwriting the essentials of the Cambodian economy - health, education, welfare
- when the Royal government was misusing the logging revenue that was being made
available to it.
"If sustainable logging was making a contribution to the budget, fine, but it
wasn't doing that. It was going into the pockets of the military and the politicians,"
"It's the donors' responsibility to insist a country follows its reasonable
legislation. All we've ever asked," says Taylor, "is for donors to pressure
the government to do what it says it's going to do."
"On the facts it seemed justified to use aid as a lever," Alley says.
When the group broke news in April 1996 of a Hun Sen-Ranariddh deal to export one
million cubic meters of timber into Thailand, the IMF began to lose patience.
It is a contentious issue: a fine line exists between lobbying donors to pressure
a government to change, and exasperated donors eventually pulling the plug. By pulling
out, some say that the IMF only further penalized an already-poor government, giving
it even less legitimate means of paying its bills, its civil servants and its soldiers.
But Taylor says that the original IMF decision to temporarily freeze its tranche
had prompted genuine efforts by the government to rectify the problem of secret logging
revenues and anarchic cutting.
He says that the IMF was on the verge of resuming aid when further "lies"
involving fresh cutting and secret deals were revealed.
Alley says that Cambodia "wasn't hurting too badly [by the IMF's decision]",
which he describes as "a hindrance, a serious message."
"All Cambodia lost was the IMF and a $27m World Bank agricultural program that
hadn't yet begun.
"It was [July's] coup that lost money for the government, [although] we do recognize
that Hun Sen has problems paying the civil service and the military," he says.
But now Global Witness are no longer pushing donors to cut aid.
"What we would advocate is a resumption of aid in a staged process. If there
is a gradual improvement in forestry reform, if [the government] starts making things
better, then donors should begin to put in more [aid] money," Alley says.
Taylor acknowledges though that donors will find it difficult to resume aid before
the upcoming elections "so the ball is out of our court".
Gooch - citing the RCAF's military control of the Cambodian side of the Vietnamese
border as a "logging playground" - does however say that the prime ministers
and the donors must address "what must be collusion to the very highest level
of the Vietnamese government".
Meanwhile, Global Witness vows to continue to tell a familiar story: "We had
the impression that since the coup the situation had deteriorated. And it has,"
"The highest levels of government are making no effort to control anything.
They're giving permission to anyone and everyone [to log]."