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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Forestry monitor under govt attack

Forestry monitor under govt attack

The government's embattled forest monitoring partner, Global Witness (GW), said it

had come under assault this week. It claimed "high-level government officials"

had called on donors to shut out the NGO from further forestry reform.

"They shouldn't expect [GW] to just leave because someone in the government

tells us to go away," said GW's Marcus Hardtke. "The situation shows that

all the talk about forestry reform has been nothing but a farce."

The move against GW comes as donors' local offices have recommended funding be discontinued

for the forest crimes monitoring project, which they have deemed a failure.

The forestry reform process recently embarrassed donors involved after police dispersed

villagers trying to arrange a meeting with Department of Forestry and Wildlife (DFW)

on December 5.

One man died, and several others were injured, although whether that was as a direct

result of police action remains unclear. GW was particularly vocal in blaming the

police.

The World Bank has also borne much criticism, as it has been intimately involved

with the forestry reform program and has loaned millions of dollars to support it.

Privately, World Bank officials say donors have no idea how to deal with the situation.

But in an "ugly" meeting, the Bank told the government that what happened

on December 5 was unacceptable.

Country director Ian Porter hinted the Bank might ditch its involvement in forestry.

"We will only support forestry reform if it is clear that the government supports

[it] too," he told the Post on December 19. "So it is not a question of

pressure but of reaching a genuine agreement."

Other donors proved less keen to discuss forestry. The UNDP said it could not comment.

Jean-Claude Levasseur, co-chair of the donor working group on natural resources,

and head of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, refused to speak to the Post

on the phone. When asked in person, he shut himself in his office and refused to

talk.

DFW head Ty Sokhun also refused to comment on GW's allegation it was being shut out

of forestry. But he has frequently taken aim at the agency, most recently in a TV

broadcast on December 12 when he accused it of "inciting unrest".

"I see that GW investigators have no skills on forestry and management, especially

the group of investigators working in Cambodia," he reportedly told TVK. "They

are usually trouble-makers. I understand that the group of Global Witness investigators

are not independent monitors, they are illegal monitors."

His comments were echoed in a statement by the Ministry of Interior (MoI) that was

also broadcast on TVK. It denied violence was used and accused GW of exaggerating.

Whatever the truth of the events of December 5, donors are re-assessing their involvement

in the process. The forest crimes monitoring unit, until now funded by the UK government,

was criticized by donors as poorly designed.

A report prepared for a donor meeting on December 20 says the unit did not work because

it ignored "fundamental and underlying reasons for [forestry] crimes".

It raised "serious questions relating to public sector governance" and

stated that trust between the project's partners and the government had deteriorated

so far as to render the project "untenable".

While the government has taken aim at GW in Phnom Penh, reports indicate it is also

acting to identify potential dissenters in the provinces. NGO workers said authorities

in several remote provinces questioned NGOs and villagers in forest concession communities

about the recent protest.

They said several villagers in Kratie were interviewed by forestry officials and

asked to thumbprint statements about their involvement.

Gordon Paterson, a community forestry advocate, said DFW was reacting in "a

very hard line way".

"It brings into question the good faith of DFW," Paterson said. "I

am really mystified by what they are hoping to achieve."

In Stung Treng, a commune official accused protesters and a local NGO, the Culture

and Environment Preservation Association (CEPA), of being part of the "opposition

party," said CEPA director Tep Bunarith.

Other NGOs in the northeast said police had visited their offices to determine whether

they were involved with the demonstrations.

"[The government] doesn't want to see in Cambodia a grassroots movement of people

who use the forest," said one forestry observer. "They're looking to nip

that in the bud. There's a lot of pressure on a lot people that I've never seen in

Cambodia before."

But an MoI spokesman indicated there was a chance GW could still work with the government.

"We welcome the activities of [GW]," said Khieu Sopheak. "We need

them, but they must perform their duty. As a partner for managing the forest they

must be accurate, honest and not exaggerate."

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