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
"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
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."