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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Sustainable forestry: the emperor's new clothes?

Sustainable forestry: the emperor's new clothes?

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It's a fairly simple concept: in essence sustainable forestry means harvesting

timber and non-timber products in such a way that the forest can replenish itself.

Also it must not ruin the lives of local people, and last but not least, it must

raise money for central government.

An example of unsustainable logging. Other foliage is predominantly vines, which strangle new trees.

That is the thinking behind the World Bank's drive to see sustainable forestry take

root, so to speak, in Cambodia. As the Bank and the government move to ensure all

logging concessionaires practice their trade in a sustainable manner, it is worth

asking whether Cambodia should conduct logging at all.

The Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have long maintained it is possible,

but more and more forestry observers have come to the conclusion that the country

is simply unable to run a sustainable forestry sector.

Three reports obtained recently by the Post have shed an interesting light on the

frank opinions of some of those involved. The first is a confidential US Embassy

draft report that examines the differences in budgeted revenue and expenditure between

1999 and 2000. It is undated but was clearly written some time during 2001.

One of its sections deals with forestry revenue, and the embassy, which is close

to the multilaterals, has some interesting, and not often-heard conclusions about

this particular budget line.

This quote is notable: "While the [World] Bank and the [International Monetary]

Fund remain vocal about forestry reform, they appear to have written the forestry

sector off as a source of revenue."

The draft also has an interesting insight into the minds of the concessionaires,

many of whom have links with powerful local interests. The quote below, for instance,

gives an indication of just how seriously logging companies take the payment of royalties,

a form of tax on every tree they harvest.

"[Government] sources have told Embassy (sic) that logging concessions are so

unconcerned about accountability that they do not even bother to make their cutting

records match their royalty payments."

The country head of the World Bank, Bonaventure Mbida-Essama, told the Post that

none of his staff currently in the country knew enough to discuss forestry. The head

of the IMF, Robert Hagemann, did not respond to an emailed request for answers.

But other forestry experts were forthcoming, and raised what is at the heart of the

US Embassy's report: that if there is no chance the forestry sector can raise revenue

officially for the government, then why is the World Bank pursuing the policy?

"The issue is interesting," says one forestry observer, "because if

it is acknowledged by the IMF and the World Bank that revenue is not an issue, then

it doesn't leave much rationale for having forest concessions. The only rationale

is that they protect forests and there is not much evidence of that."

The other two mainstays of sustainable forestry - ensuring local livelihoods

are not ruined by the activities of logging concessionaires, and preserving the environment

by means of strictly enforced cutting cycles within each concession - are also

worth considering.

The numbers of people involved are substantial: a World Food Programme study two

years ago found that 570,000 people live inside forest concessions. The same report

noted that another 3 million people live within 30 kilometers of forest concessions,

on whose resources many of them rely.

Which brings us to the next statistic: the number of people living in rural areas

and those living in poverty. The usual statistics trotted out show that around 85

percent of the country's 13 million people live in rural areas, and that 40 percent

of those live under the poverty line of 50 cents a day.

Given that the World Bank's overriding ambit, not to mention the government's identical

public utterances, is the alleviation of poverty, it seems obvious that those who

have lost out to the logging barons in the past, and could well lose out to them

in the future, are the millions of rural poor.

"Far from alleviating poverty, it is likely that concessions are making people

poorer," says Andrew Cock, forestry policy advisor at NGO Forum. "That's

why we are beginning to push very hard for what the World Bank is doing here to be

questioned.

"They have pushed this idea since 1996 at least but it has provided no public

benefit. It has raised around $100 million in revenue for government, which does

not compare with what has been lost."

The other two reports on the forestry sector both come from the UN Food and Agriculture

Organization. The FAO assists the Department of Forestry and Wildlife, which has

primary responsibility to manage Cam-bodia's state forests, in monitoring forest

crimes. Its chief technical advisor to the forest crimes monitoring unit (FCMU) produced

two scathing reports on the realities that job involved.

One notable feature of the reports was the absence of achievements beyond setting

up the FCMU in 1999 and defining its operational procedures. The numerous problems,

which took up the majority of space, were mainly encountered once the FCMU was established.

The findings in the FAO's 2001 Annual Report, dated November 2001, were deemed so

good that the FAO's head office in Rome blocked its release. It noted that: "this

is a good report, very much to the point and thus potentially dangerous to release

... at least for the time being."

The FAO was also unwilling to release the second report, dated May 2002, although

the Post managed to obtain it. The organ-ization's country head Jean-Claude Levasseur

was out of the country, and other staff were unable to comment.

Both reports contain acid indictments of DFW, accusing it of obstruction, deleting

forest crimes from the FCMU database, and blatant unwillingness to tackle logging

companies that break the law.

And part of the blame for that, the second report dated May 2002 stated, lay with

UN bodies and donors, whom it said had scrupulously ignored the issue.

"There appears to be unwillingness by any UN agency or donor to address the

real underlying issue of corruption at all levels of government within the forestry

sector," the May 2002 report stated.

"Salaries ... are much too low for people to support themselves at most levels.

It is also known that most positions are not selected by a person's merit, but by

how much they are willing to pay for the position."

The report's author concluded that: "Until this issue is addressed and taken

seriously, little progress ... can be made. The progress that can be made will be

too late for Cambodia's forests."

Growing numbers of forestry professionals are well aware of the risks involved. When

donors held their annual meeting in Phnom Penh in June, the NGO Forum submitted its

opinions on forestry. The statement noted that: "There is growing recognition

that the concession system will not work in Cambodia, just as it has not worked in

other countries."

It stated that many forest concessions were not suitable for commercial timber harvesting,

and "should never have been allowed".

"Despite numerous documented illegal activities on the part of concessionaires

during the past year, concessionaires have not faced the consequences of their actions,"

it noted.

The FAO's reports make the lack of action against the politically well-connected

companies abundantly clear, as does the US Embassy report, which concluded that the

government has "not substantially improved" its record on enforcing forestry

law.

So why is the World Bank, along with the IMF, carrying on pushing the concept of

sustainable forestry?

"The IMF probably doesn't have a clear position itself," says Andrew Cock.

"The World Bank is pushing a particular paradigm, which is sustainable forest

management.

"It argues that if you don't use the forest for things like logging then it

will not be valued and that will lead to more rapid forest loss. But there is no

recognition that you make more money if you log quickly, and that concessionaires

are not interested in sustainable forestry."

Marcus Hardtke of NGO Global Witness says the reason for the Bank's enthusiasm goes

well beyond Cambodia.

"It's even worse than that," he says. "The World Bank has promoted

this new policy to support logging in tropical forests around the world. They have

said that Cambodia is a great success story - well if that is the case, then the

future looks very bad for forests worldwide."

In the meantime the government, concessionaires and the multilaterals are moving

ahead with inventories, environmental impact assessments, and forest management plans.

All of these are meant to ensure the country can successfully manage its forests

sustainably.

The lessons of the past, say observers, show that it is unlikely to succeed, and

the risks for the millions of rural poor should not be underestimated. The current

assessment of the management plans is being done behind closed doors with no consultation

from NGOs, local people or other interested parties.

Aside from the fact that this is against the law, as NGO Forum stated in its press

release dated August 29, it does not bode well for a successful future.

But perhaps having a sustainable sector and being aware of the needs of the poor

is not uppermost in the minds of those involved. In fact, a closing quote from one

of the FAO reports shows the mindset of at least some involved in making the key

decisions:

"In fact as advisors we have been told that, 'It's our country and we'll do

it the way we want to do it and we don't need your help.'"

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