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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The campaign to witness falling trees

The campaign to witness falling trees

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

track.

"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

July's fighting.

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

were doing."

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,"

says Alley.

"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,"

Alley says.

"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,"

says Taylor.

"The highest levels of government are making no effort to control anything.

They're giving permission to anyone and everyone [to log]."

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