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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - King weighs in to forestry fracas

King weighs in to forestry fracas

King Norodom Sihanouk granted a meeting to villagers living in logging concessions

on December 4 to hear their concerns about plans that some critics charge could leave

their communities without viable forests.

Attendees said the King assured them he would raise the matter with the government,

and instructed senior palace official, Kong Sam Ol, to "bring this issue to

Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Senate, and Parliament".

Villagers were grateful that the audience was granted after only four days notice,

but said they were not celebrating yet.

"We are not full of expectation, maybe half-way," said Pich Pun, a villager

from Preah Vihear, whose home lies within the concession of Cherndar Plywood. "We

want to get results because we need results to tell our neighbors. But we don't know

what day we will go back."

His low expectation was borne out late on December 5, when four truckoads of police

used batons to drive around 100 villagers away from the forestry department in Phnom

Penh. A witness told the Post the villagers had waited the entire day seeking a workshop

with the department to discuss their grievances.

The audience with the King was a more genteel affair, and was composed of 175 village

representatives from the targeted logging areas. They have been in Phnom Penh for

several weeks lobbying government officials to revise the forestry plans that threaten

to harm their livelihoods.

The meeting with the King came after the end of a highly controversial consultation

period that lasted just 19 days. It was criticized across the board as grossly inadequate

and inconsistent with forestry reforms being sought by the World Bank and donors.

Some observers said the disclosure process, as well as many of the Forestry Management

Plans (FMPs) and Environmental and Social Impact Assessments (ESIAs) submitted by

logging concessionaires, had failed to meet the basic principles of transparency

and public participation demanded by reform advocates.

The chaotic commentary period that began on November 11 saw the release of the plans

delayed several days, insufficient copies, illegible documents, and a blunt refusal

by the government to distribute any of them. Instead the Department of Forestry and

Wildlife (DFW) relied on the World Bank and NGOs to do the job.

Despite the obstructions, seven NGOs told the Post that they and several village

groups were able to submit comments to DFW by November 30.

"We hope we can raise the issue with Prime Minister Hun Sen that this consultation

process has been a farce," said Michael Bird, country director for Oxfam GB.

"We have seen no evidence of good faith to reform the forest sector. We feel

the plans are completely inadequate and need to be redone."

But when villagers met with DFW's deputy director Sam Ang on December 2, he dismissed

their comments as too vague or already covered by existing forestry laws. A request

by the villagers for a workshop to discuss the issues was also rejected by the department

on December 5.

"The people's proposals are too general," Sam Ang said. "I asked them

to read the ESIA book and the FMP so they can verify what is wrong and what is right.

Then they can discuss them with the working teams."

DFW said it would send teams to consult with villagers living in concession areas,

but has not yet done so. Villagers were skeptical about the possibility of future

discussions, pointing out that no one had talked to them when the plans were being

drafted.

"They never came," said Mon Sakin, 48, from Kratie whose community is in

the Samling concession. "In the ESIA, they say they consulted 265 families,

but they never talked to any of us."

A 2001 report by the UN's World Food Programme estimated that 1.3 million people

rely in some way on a forest-based economy. One million more live within 30 kilometers

of forestry concessions.

"We are not hopeful about what we discussed with the government," said

villager Pich Pun. "Because based on what DFW says, they never talk about people's

livelihoods. They always say development, investment, development, investment. They

always focus on the concessionaire."

A review of the FMPs by the government's official forest monitor Global Witness (GW)

found the documents contained "fundamental flaws, questionable data [and] numerous

deliberate omissions".

It concluded that rejecting many of the plans was "the only option ... for the

success of forestry reform in Cambodia".

The management plans, some of which GW said were clearly written by DFW staff, copied

mistakes from one plan to another, and ignored the ecological impacts of logging.

They also contained clear violations of the Forestry Law.

The NGO raised questions in its report, which was submitted to DFW on December 2,

over whether the drafts could qualify as sustainable management plans as required

by the forestry legislation.

GW gave as one example the FMP drafted by Cherndar Plywood, which stated that it

did not have enough trees in its concession to operate at full capacity, which is

the most profitable.

Cherndar Plywood indicated it would buy logs from other concessionaires, but other

logging companies have said they too would need to do the same. GW warned the country's

processing overcapacity would likely lead to an increase in illegal logging.

The episode has left observers doubting government's willingness to consider comments

from rural residents and NGOs, in the face of increasing pressure from concessionaires

to resume logging.

DFW has not yet evaluated the FMPs, which will then go for approval to Chan Sarun,

the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

One observer felt the meeting with the King had generated hope.

"It certainly makes the villagers feel like someone with a lot of authority

is on their side," said Andrew Cock of NGO Forum. "For the King to say,

'I support you and I support your struggle for your rights,' it could have a kind

of ripple effect over the long-term. That's what we hope."

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