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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Govt rejects Global Witness claims

Govt rejects Global Witness claims

THE Cambodian government has publicly disavowed a Consultative Group donors briefing document produced by the environmental watchdog organization Global Witness (GW), calling its contents "uncontrolled and unverified".

It insisted that the contents of the report not be considered during the June 11-13 CG meeting in Tokyo.

In a letter dated June 5 from Acting Minister of Agriculture Chan Tong Yves and circulated to donor representatives, GW is accused of violating the terms of a "Reporting Protocol" signed June 5 by the release of its most recent report "The Credibility Gap and the Need to Bridge It - Increasing the Pace of Forestry Reform".

"...this document has been delivered by Global Witness before the "Reporting Protocol" was agreed and signed," the letter states. "The Government must, therefore, inform the donors that this document is not considered as [an] official document and that uncontrolled and unverified information cannot be used during the next CG meeting in Tokyo."

The "Reporting Protocol" agreed on June 5 by the government and GW - the independent monitor of the donor-funded Forest Crime Monitoring Unit - specified that government officials were to receive GW reports 15 days prior to public release in order for government feedback to be incorporated into the final document.

The agreement was seen as a final end to an embarrassing public spat that erupted between GW and the government in February when Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened not to renew visas of GW foreign staff in Cambodia in response to an unflattering briefing document.

However in a June 8 press statement Global Witness defended the release of the report by stating that it had more than fulfilled its contractual obligations to the government.

"'The Credibility Gap' was sent to key members of the RGC on 11th May 2001, 20 working days ahead of its release to the press and five days in excess of the timeframe agreed in the protocols. It is therefore unclear why the Acting Minister...does not think that the government has had sufficient time to respond to the points raised in the document," the press release stated.

In a June 7 phone interview, Tong Yves defended his position and was unwilling to state why his ministry had been unable to respond to the findings of the GW report.

"Why did [GW] report in this way? We cannot accept that they give this report to donors like this," he said. "This is too much and I don't want to talk about this...please call Ty Sokun at the Forestry Department."

When contacted Sokun said he was unable to provide comment on the matter until after the Post's deadline.

Donors expressed surprise and concern about the government's stance on the donor's report.

"The important thing is not the protocol or how [GW] deliver the report, but what's in the report, what the status of forestry management is in Cambodia, how the forestry crime unit is being run and what the overall requirements are for remedying the problems," American Ambassador Kent Weidemann said of the dispute. "From my perspective and the perspective of my government, we expect the Cambodian government to take this report very seriously and act upon it. Any criticism about the report is nonsense and a waste of time."

British Ambassador Stephen Bridges toed a more conciliatory line toward the government's criticism of GW, calling the matter "unfortunate" but insisting it would not alter in any way the proceedings of next week's CG meeting.

"I have sympathy for the government, but really at the [CG] meeting we'll talk about the macro issues rather than any individual reports," Bridges said. "Hopefully this won't happen again because the protocol's been signed and Global Witness is back on the case but in terms of impact on the CG there won't be any."

Ironically, the government's handling of the matter threatens to overshadow the report's contents, which while offering measured praise for the RGC's forestry policy, warns of a significant rise in illegal logging by Cambodia's legal logging concessionaires.

In particular the report documents the case against the Chinese government-owned concession Everbright, the investigation of which resulted in the Jan 2000 arrest of GW investigators legally seeking to document forest crimes at an Everbright plywood factory on National Route One.

The government has yet to take any action against Everbright in spite of evidence collected by GW and Department of Forestry and Wildlife investigators of Everbright's attempts to cover up extensive illegal logging activities in both its Kratie concession and a neighboring Pheapimex-Fucan concession area in January

"The authorities could have clearly demonstrated their commitment to further reform by taking strong action against Everbright in January, but chose not to," said Global Witness Director Jon Buckrell. "Having rid the country of the worst excesses of anarchic logging, the next target is to crack down on illegal logging of the concessionaires."

According to Patrick Lyng, Chief Technical Advisor of the Forest Crimes Monitoring and Reporting Project, the government will get the opportunity for such a crack down sooner rather than later.

"Everything about Everbright in the [GW] report is absolutely correct and GW is right, Everbright could have been a huge win [for the government]," Lyng said. "But if you look at what [logs are] moving down roads and floating down rivers it seems to me to be greater than the volume of the [concessionaires'] allowable cut, so if we're allowed to go out and investigate I sense we'll find another Everbright."

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