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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - New witness of illegal logging poised to sign with government

New witness of illegal logging poised to sign with government

Nine months after the government fired its forestry crime monitor, Global Witness,

a Swiss firm, Société Générale de Surveillance (SGS),

is set to become Cambodia's new monitor. But SGS will face rampant illegal logging

threatening to consume the final remnants of the country's forests.

The World Bank (WB), which has withheld a $15 million Structural Adjustment Credit

(SAC) for two years due to the government's failure to reform the forestry sector,

is now pushing for the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to sign a

contract by November 21.

That would fulfill a final condition for the release of the SAC money badly needed

by the government, which is looking to close a budget deficit.

Critics have questioned whether releasing the SAC funds influenced the WB to allow

the government to sign off on a new, apparently weaker, monitor. Details of the new

Terms of Reference (TOR), regarded as a retreat from government accountability and

transparency when reported in June, have not yet been announced.

As it was written, the new TOR backed off from the confrontational and investigative

style used by Global Witness in favor of what was described by World Bank's forestry

specialist Bill Magrath as a "private auditor".

Much of the work will focus on verifying and analyzing figures rather than field

investigations. Civil society, such as organizations like Global Witness, is expected

to fill that role, said Magrath. The forestry crime NGO continues to operate in Cambodia

without government sanction as an official monitor.

The previous TOR were stripped of many of their binding provisions. That raised the

possibility of creating a rubber stamp for illegal logging, rather than a credible

independent monitor.

For example, a clause requiring that the monitor be free of "direction, control

or influence of any ministry that will be audited or reviewed" was removed.

It also dropped a mandatory six-month assessment of the government's compliance with

its obligations. The random unannounced spot checks that routinely turned up evidence

of illegal logging under Global Witness were also eliminated from the new TOR.

A storm of criticism followed the new terms, but the World Bank maintains many of

these concerns have now been addressed.

"All of the issues that were raised ...have been attended to in the form of

minor changes in the TOR [as well as] conditions of the contract," said Magrath.

"The government has agreed to provide information and accept information disclosure

on terms that are essentially identical or better than that which Global Witness

was working under."

He did not elaborate further.

However, Magrath acknowledged that SGS would operate under a significantly more constrained

mandate than that of its predecessor, funded by the Danish government and the UN

Food and Agriculture Organization.

"It's a narrower scope," he said. "What Global Witness was doing was

broader. But Global Witness made up its own job description; it did a lot of things

in excess of its narrowly defined independent monitor function. SGS is only doing

a strict part of the TOR."

SGS, one of the world's largest monitoring and certification firms, has not yet commented

publicly on the contract. The World Bank, which is funding the position, said the

one-year contract is worth $425,000.

SGS plans to send its forestry supervisor in the Asia-Pacific region to Cambodia

on December 1. The company is expected to close a deal with the government that week,

according to a forestry expert involved with SGS.

"We're ready to start within a week's notice," he said.

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