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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Military runs rampant in plunder of forests

Military runs rampant in plunder of forests

Confrontations in Mount Aural Wildlife Sanctuary between military-backed loggers

and rangers and conservation groups have again thrown the spotlight on the Cambodian

Military's plunder of the country's protected areas.

Aerial view of a bush sawmill in operation, one of dozens of such mills in Aural Wildlife Sanctuary.

The countless illegal logging operations consuming Aural's forests are variously

operated, protected or commissioned by military units, notably Military Region 3

and Battalion 313 of Brigade 31. In addition, approximately 70 Region 3 soldiers

and some of their families are occupying an area of land along the road northwest

of Kantout village, inside the wildlife sanctuary. Military Region 3 officers have

euphemistically termed this a "military development zone".

Tensions between soldiers and Ministry of Environment rangers erupted into a series

of confrontations over the weekend of March 19-21. In the worst of these, two people

- a villager, and a military policeman working with NGO Conservation International

- were shot and wounded.

Aural spans three provinces and is the wildlife sanctuary most readily accessible

from Phnom Penh. Granted protected status in 1993 in recognition of its high biodiversity

and conservation value, the area was at that time still contested by Khmer Rouge

and Government forces. Aural was subsequently ravaged by military loggers during

the so-called "anarchic" logging period of the mid 1990s.

Despite its protected status, the Aural has remained, de facto, a military fiefdom.

Military-controlled logging and sawmill operations that have transformed the sanctuary's

southern areas into a wasteland are now eating their way up into the sanctuary's

montane forest around the Aural mountain complex. Asked recently to explain the army's

mission in Aural, one Military Region 3 officer cited the area's historical reputation

as a haven for bandits and anarchic elements. Although the continued presence of

armed marauders in the sanctuary is not in doubt, the officer omitted to mention

that most are also members of the national armed forces.

Even in the Cambodian context, it is somewhat extraordinary that the military's pillage

of Mount Aural should be allowed to continue. In most countries, the highest mountain

holds a certain symbolic value and is a source of national pride. In Cambodia, by

contrast, the fate of Aural is more of an embarrassment: a testament to the lack

of political will to protect the country's natural heritage. The apparent willingness

to allow Aural to be converted into a sandpit is a tragic loss of largely unexplored

biodiversity. It is also extremely short-sighted economically as the mountain's proximity

to Phnom Penh and exceptional natural beauty would make it an ideal location for

a well-managed eco-tourism program. This option will rapidly recede, however, if

the deforestation of Aural's slopes continues.

Sawn timber being loaded onto a Military Region 4 truck, Kratie province, April 2004.

It would be wrong to assume that the military logging of Aural is an aberration.

The military's illegal extraction of timber and other forest products also poses

the most immediate threat to many of Cambodia's other protected areas. Not content

with despoiling Aural, Military Region 3 personnel, together with timber dealers,

are logging rare luxury-grade Tunloap trees in neighboring Kirirom National Park.

The wood is being exported to Vietnam and China, most probably for the production

of furniture.

In Phnom Samkos and Samlaut protected areas in Pursat and Battambang provinces, Military

Region 5 troops log to order for businessmen on the Thai side of the border. The

same protected areas are also a centre for illegal production of yellow vine powder

and Mreah Preuw oil, which is carried out under the supervision of Military Region

5 personnel. These high-value products are extracted from native plants and trees

through chemical processing and distillation, at a significant cost to the forest

environment. The powder and oil are trafficked to Vietnam and beyond; unverified

reports suggest that their end uses include the production of drugs such as ecstasy.

At the end of April, Military Region 5 Border Protection Battalions 501 and 502 were

continuing to run yellow-vine powder factories in Phnom Samkos and Samlaut protected

areas respectively, the latter operated by a workforce of more than 200. Border Battalion

504, meanwhile, was observed to be in possession of approximately 250 cubic meters

of illegally felled luxury timber, stored at their headquarters north of Pailin.

All three of these battalions take their orders from General Pov Saran, who commands

Region 5's Brigade 53. The enterprising General Saran also finds time to operate

a sawmill, which is conveniently situated behind his house in Pailin town.

Straddling Siem Reap, Oddar Meanchey and Preah Vihear provinces, Kulen Prom Tep Wildlife

Sanctuary is a perennial target of Military Region 4 units logging the forests along

the northern border with Thailand. As in other protected areas, the primary target

is high-grade timbers, particularly luxury species, which are then exported to Thailand

or used in the construction of opulent new hotels in Siem Reap.

A steel bridge collapsed in Snoul district, Kratie, as a timber truck was moving across on April 10. Talk at the scene was that the bridge supports had been weakened by locals stealing bolts, but there were claims of the truck being overloaded. The truck's permit was issued to a woman named Yeay Chhun, who the Snuol governor Bong Bopharith said paid for the bridge repairs. He said it was "a small issue. If we talk a lot about it, people may be afraid to come through to Mondulkiri."

In February this year, timber dealer Yeay Chhun commis-sioned Military Region 2 Battalion

204 troops to secretly log at least 70 first- and second-grade trees in Snuol Wildlife

sanctuary in Kratie. A subsequent illegal logging venture by the same parties made

a more public impression on April 10 when a steel bridge in Snuol district collapsed

under the weight of Yeay Chhun's fleet of timber trucks.

Such cases illustrate a wellestablished pattern of forest crimes committed by military

personnel in protected areas. It should be stressed that those involved include not

only Royal Cambodian Armed Forces infantry units, but also other, specialized sections

of the armed forces. The High Command Engineering Group, for example, is the main

exponent of a well-worn device by which road construction doubles as a pretext for

illegal logging. A distinctive feature of High Command Engineering Group road-building

technique is the generous expanses of forest cleared on side of the road itself.

The extra effort does not go unrewarded, however, as the Engineers are invariably

able to sell the timber they have illegally felled at a substantial profit. Such

was the case when High Command Engineers logged their way through broad tracts of

Phnom Samkos forest while constructing road 56 to the Thai border 2002-2003. The

Cambodian Navy, meanwhile, has its main base inside Ream National Park near Sihanoukville

and has long played a leading role in that area's degradation by its logging and

poaching activities.

The destructive impact of such activities on the country's protected areas is self-evident.

Military logging operations typically target rare tree species, driving some towards

extinction within Cambodia. Toxic effluents derived from yellow-vine production,

moreover, are frequently dumped in streams and rivers, causing a more insidious form

of degradation. Soldiers engaged in such activities commonly run lucrative sidelines

in the bushmeat trade and, as with trees, the wildlife species they hunt are invariably

the rarest and least able to sustain such onslaught.

The impacts extend over and above the damage to the conservation value and biodiversity

of the country's protected areas, however. The presence of national defence forces

operating as armed criminal gangs perpetuates insecurity and has a deeply corrosive

impact on governance in remote areas of the country. Civil authorities, whose empowerment

is a key objective of donor-funded decentralization programs, are frequently sidelined

by shadow administrations structured around military patron-client relationships

and armed force.

Military logging operations also carry a heavy cost to Cambodia economically. Being

illegal, neither logging nor the extraction of products such as yellow vine and Mreah

Preuw are regulated, no taxes are paid and Cambodian citizens derive no benefit.

Luxury woods targeted by military logging typically fetch upwards of $600 per cubic

meter and the market value of these stolen state assets runs into millions if not

tens of millions of dollars per year. Beyond the value of the timber itself, the

costs of logging, in terms of environmental services such as watershed management,

are also highly significant. In a country in which rural livelihoods are derived

from systems of agriculture and fisheries based around water management, the loss

of such environmental functions is something that Cambodia can ill-afford.

Arguably the most absurd aspect of the present situation is the way in which Cambodians

are required to support a parasitic military at the expense of basic social services.

Cambodia's defence budget currently soaks up the largest share of the treasury's

meager resources at approximately 25 percent of Government expenditure. What is this

money actually spent on? On the ground observation suggests that it subsidizes military

looting of valuable natural assets from which the country could potentially derive

substantial benefit.

It is true that the basic rate of pay to RCAF soldiers is wholly inadequate and that

many communities of former soldiers depend on forest products for their livelihoods.

It is important to stress, however, that large-scale military logging operations

are not geared towards sustaining the livelihoods of impoverished foot soldiers.

Conversely, they are part of a well-established patron-client system dedicated to

filling the pockets of the generals. The system's effectiveness as a money-making

machine is illustrated by senior officers' conspicuous expenditure on fleets of Landcruisers

and Phnom Penh real estate. Cambodia continues to bear the burden of a military whose

core capacity is theft of the country's natural resources rather than protection

of its borders.

In line with an overall trend, there are strong indications that military logging

has expanded over the course of the past year. Such activities have flourished in

a political vacuum in which Government functionaries claim they no longer have the

authority to enforce the law. Moreover, as in other state agencies, notably the Forest

Administration, it is likely that RCAF officers have intensified their black economy

enterprises in the race to purchase more senior positions under the new Government.

Military logging is not a new phenomenon, however, so much as continuation of the

so-called "anarchic" logging which ministers regularly congratulate themselves

on having eradicated. "Anarchic" logging peaked in the mid to late 1990s

as lawlessness in the countryside collided with rising tension between CPP and Funcinpec

and the efforts of both to enhance their off-budget incomes. The primary perpetrators

of this "anarchy" were those responsible for ensuring Cambodia's security:

the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.

While the scale of the plunder has certainly declined, the "anarchic" military

loggers never really disappeared. Instead they found refuge, somewhat ironically,

in wildlife sanctuaries and other protected areas. Cambodia's protected area system

was drawn up in 1993, at a time when Government troops were still battling Khmer

Rouge forces in remote areas of the country. The Government of the time found it

expedient to assign protected status to regions which it did not control and several

of the protected areas have a recent history of military operations. Through these,

RCAF units established informal zones of influence and control which they have since

proved reluctant to relinquish.

The transfer of predatory military units away from protected areas has been successfully

effected in the past by NGOs and local officials in Koh Kong province. Ultimately,

however, the issue cannot be resolved through local-level negotiations alone. Military

rape of protected areas remains a chronic problem and one which calls into question

the state's capacity to control its own armed forces.

What is urgently required is a commitment from the highest levels of Government to

permanently remove all military units from the vicinity of Cambodia's protected areas.

Such a commitment needs to be accompanied by a clear and time-bound action plan for

implementation. Decisive action now would reap benefits not only in terms of conservation

but also in the realm of governance reform. Without it, Cambodia faces terminal damage

to its natural heritage and the long-term entrenchment of military power structures

dedicated to organized crime.



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