​Cambodia's rural poor at risk from slow forest reform | Phnom Penh Post

Cambodia's rural poor at risk from slow forest reform


Publication date
12 October 2001 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Robert Carmichael

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An overloaded truck with logs from a Timas Resources' concession waits near the Mekong River on Route 6, north of Phnom Penh.


here are not many issues on which the government, donors and NGOs agree, but

here are two: the forestry sector is badly in need of reform; and now is a particularly

sensitive time for outspoken comment.


It is on the scale of reform that opinions differ most. The government's refrain

is that everything is on track and maintains it is committed to good governance and

transparency. Donors agree generally with the government's assessment, although they

had some criticisms after a donor working group meeting with government September

27. They concede that progress has not been as quick as they would have liked.

NGOs take a stronger line. They say the current forestry reform agenda is fatally

flawed since it is 'reforming' the concession logging system in an effort to have

a sustainable logging sector.

And the donors are under no illusions about the way concession logging has been run

to date: the Asian Development Bank's resident representative, Urooj Malik, described

past management practices as 'a total system failure'.

Environmental NGO Global Witness reckons the concessionaires should have had their

contracts canceled and the entire process re-started. Other observers question whether

the country should even allow concession logging.

Disputes between government, donors and NGOs are nothing new, but the stakes in the

complex tussle that is forestry reform are high. Most at risk in the management of

the forests are the rural poor. If the reform effort is botched, the result will

be a terrible irony - the current process is a central pillar of the strategy to

reduce poverty.

One reason behind the slow progress is that pressure on the government to implement

forestry reform has eased as other initiatives have risen to dominate the agenda.

Judicial reform, the commune elections and the Khmer Rouge trials are jut some of

the issues that have lowered its profile.

Only a few years ago donors had visions of a sustainable logging sector worth between

$50-$100 million a year. They now admit that, in an industry that produces a mere

$10 million annual revenue, ensuring good revenue flow over the next couple of years

will come second to getting in place good law.

NGOs say that as the World Bank's reforms were based on the industry's projected

worth amounting to ten times its actual value, the entire basis on which reforms

have been based is now in question.

"Maybe it's about time to look into who needs the forest and what's actually

good for the people in this country and not focusing on export data," says Global


A remarkably high proportion of Cambodia's population lives in rural areas. The 2000

Demographic and Health Survey classifies 84 percent of Cambodians as rural. The 1999

Cambodia Socio-Economic Survey stated that 40.1 percent of the rural population live

in poverty.

Any increase in rural poverty could have severe effects, as the latest Cambodia Development

Research Institute report, released in August, makes clear:

"(T)he proportion of people living below the poverty line is still high, especially

in rural areas ... The number of people unable to earn a living in rural areas is

rising, and, as a result, migration to already-overcrowded Phnom Penh is increasing."

The results of unsustainable logging are common the world over: increased flooding,

increased drought, a reduction in water quality, soil erosion, siltation of rivers

and dams, ruined crops, a loss of biodiversity and the destruction of local people's

livelihoods. The burden of these consequences falls mainly on the poor.

Tine Feldman, team leader of the natural resources management team at UNDP, says

that unsustainable logging is having a detrimental impact on natural resources and


"Such practices lead to negative impacts such as soil erosion, which in turn

negatively influence both the overall quality of land and also lakes and rivers through

salination and siltation," she says.

Andrew Cock, forest policy consultant at the NGO Forum, says the rural poor rely

heavily on forests for subsistence food as well as forest products such as resin,

rattan, vines and medicines. The land is often used as grazing land for cattle, while

spiritual beliefs relating to forests are important to many.

"People throughout rural Cambodia use forests as a form of social insurance.

It acts as a buffer for when they lose access to other income earning streams, for

example, a low rice yield due to drought or flooding," he explains. "A

forest in the vicinity of where they live would be used as a resource pool on which

to subsist until conditions improve."

To date there have been very few studies on the rural poor and their reliance on

forests. The World Food Program recently released a study on the potential decline

of food security among the population. In its introduction, the organization noted

that "studies ... show a significant dependency on forests by communities for

a variety of food and non-food needs".

The results showed that 45 percent of the country's population suffered "high

potential physical forest loss". In other words, almost half Cambodia's population

has faced, or could face, problems associated with forest loss.

Cock says it is fundamental to examine whether the current system of concession-based

forest management is even appropriate to Cambodia in terms of achieving the government's

planned objectives in meeting its development targets.

"Does [the system] achieve poverty alleviation? No, because the revenue generated

is so small. Does it conserve the resources? No, because there is no indication that

concessionaires have or will have any incentive for long or even medium term management

of that resource."

"Environmentally the impacts are obvious, so the question is: Why have this

system and why promote it?" he asks. "There are a lot of other products

that villagers get from the forests."

"I have seen predictions that Cambodia will be a timber importer in ten or fifteen

years. What will happen in terms of housing for most people? It makes no sense to

export timber on any large scale," he says. "This idea of converting it

all to plywood and shipping it out, and then in ten years time needing to import

it, is quite astonishing."

The forestry sector has long been a byword for corruption, intimidation and undue

political influence. There are numerous reports of widespread illegal logging, non-payment

of royalties by concessionaires, theft of village land, and even the murder of villagers

by concessionaires' security guards.

The new forestry law, says the DFW, will regulate the industry and should be ready

early next year. Other changes include renegotiating the contracts of the concessionaires,

improving monitoring and prosecution of forest crimes, and better communication between

the various ministries and agencies.

"This will create a structure to ensure sustainable forest management. It will

also develop a strategy to provide the kind of evidence needed to bring some concessionaires

to court if it came to that," says Dennis Cengel, an advisor to the Department

of Forestry and Wildlife (DFW).

Cengel's optimism is not shared by some observers, but most are unwilling to comment

publicly about the chances of improvement under the new law. The process is, one

explains, at a very sensitive stage:

"My opinion is that legislation is not the underlying issue - the problems are

political and institutional. So I would not expect that just because you have a new

law which in some senses is more comprehensive than other laws, that you will get

some fundamental change on how the forest sector is governed. The old law was inadequate

in some respects but it could have been used as a tool to stop much of what occurred."

A lack of political will is a common complaint, but there are others. One is that

there is no clear line of responsibility between government ministries. Another is

the fact that many concessions are guarded by the military - which in some areas

also suppresses forest crimes. This has helped ensure the impunity of concessionaires.

Paring down the competing interests is an important part of the new reforms, says

Cengel. By early next year the streamlined process will strictly define where responsibility

lies in all areas - from enforcement of cutting quotas and investigation of forest

crimes to the sharing of information.

The Forest Crimes Monitoring Unit (FCMU) is part of the DFW, and in partnership with

Global Witness records and passes on evidence of forest crimes. These range from

concessionaires felling trees outside their allotted area to intimidation of villagers

and the cutting of resin trees, a critical source of income for many villagers.

The lack of efficient investigation of forest crimes has long been a problem. UNDP's

Feldman says the UNDP strongly supports the reform measures and regards a viable

system that deals with forest crimes as a priority.

The ADB's Malik says solving forest crimes goes deeper than merely canceling cutting


"It involves the whole chain, starting with the political will and the commitment

of the government. Then there is all of these players working in concert with each

other, namely the FCMU, the role of Global Witness as an independent monitor, the

cooperation of the DFW, the assistance of the Department of the Environment. Ultimately

it involves the Council of Ministers making the decisions, if there are crimes, on

how to tackle them," he says.

There are still problems involved with forest crimes monitoring itself. The government's

forest crimes monitoring report covering the first half of 2001, complains that the

sub-decree under which the unit operates "has many loopholes and insufficient

punishment effecting abuse of law without fear".

"If that is the case," says Malik, "then obviously we need to look

at that quickly. Clearly the laws that govern forest crimes are important on paper,

but more important in practice."

"The process we are trying to develop here has a number of different elements,"

says Cengel. "The first one is to renegotiate with the 17 concessionaires. The

initial meetings we had with them [in September] were to determine if they would

agree to the new Model Forest Concession Agreement. In some cases that was the case

immediately and in other cases they wanted to fight against us."

GAT's concession logging area in Kampong Thom Province.

Cengel says that future negotiations will iron out these differences. A second part,

he says, is to develop management plans for the concessionaires to improve their

performance. He says that the need to have high quality management plans had contributed

to the dashed expectations of the donors.

Donors and NGOs were under the impression that the concessionaires' forest management

plans were meant to have been delivered and approved by the end of last month.

Under the revised timetable - about which donors were not told - the DFW required

each concessionaire merely to let the department know how they were going to fulfill

their management plans. The DFW presented this as progress. Donors and NGOs expected


Steven Schonberger, senior operations officer at the World Bank, said donors were

disappointed. Although the World Bank understood this was a difficult process, it

wanted faster progress.

"[The government is] currently operating under the provisions of the old framework,"

said Schonberger. "We are very interested in seeing that transition happen as

soon as possible, because these new laws provide a reasonable framework for forest


Global Witness says that talk of meaningful reform has been exposed as hollow by

concessionaires, who have had two years and almost three cutting seasons to get their

house in order, but have done little about it. The organization doubts whether most

concessionaires are even interested in sustainable logging.

"It is a bit cheap to use the same arguments [about the lack of progress] as

they did almost three years ago, saying we have to believe in restructuring and the

good faith of a number of concessionaires. They did this already and it did not work

out," says the organization.

"In the meantime, the fact remains that these concessionaires are still logging

without a real management plan, like they did in 1995, 1996 and 1997, and the key

players are still there, and when it comes to on the ground operations there has

been no change during all this reform process."

"So if you have no change on the ground, and you have the same players doing

the same things with the same methods, then where is your forestry reform?"

asks Global Witness.

There is a further aspect to the donor interest in the forestry sector reform, and

that is the establishment of community forestry as a way to help improve the lot

of the rural poor. Work started on a new draft of the community forestry sub-decree

earlier this year, and a workshop will be held mid-October to discuss the next step.

UNDP's Feldman says her organization "strongly supports" the ongoing dialogue

on the sub-decree.

"Given [the level of poverty in rural areas] it is imperative to focus on how

to ensure local communities have access to their own livelihoods," she says.

UNDP is working with the government in several provinces to drive home the importance

of local community involvement.

Global Witness says giving communities the right to manage the forests is a logical

step, not least because they could hardly do a worse job than the 'free for all'

approach used by concessionaires.

"Based on our experience in the field, we don't really see the concessionaires

are protecting the forest," says the organization. "So if you make sure

that concession land is not grabbed by rich individuals for land concessions, and

if you involve the communities and give them a little bit more authority and ownership

of the areas, then it seems to be the logical way forward right now."

Andrew Cock at NGO Forum says that community forestry is an important component of

any longer term strategy for governing the country's forest resources, including

those old growth forests essential to small communities that rely on resin.

"There is a recognition that communities have an important stake in the management

of resources in the sense that people rely upon those resources," he says. However,

he warns that the speed at which the government moves away from the concession system

is crucial.

The ADB is more optimistic. "The ultimate benefits of the community forestry

sub-decree and its implementation are enormous," says ADB's Malik. "And

that, we believe, is the future of Cambodia: to provide for community-based management

of natural resources - not just forestry, but fisheries as well. Communities depend

a lot on natural resources, and the nexus between poverty, natural resources and

good governance is extremely strong."

"Agriculture is the real backbone of Cambodia," he continues. "We

must take a balanced view of market-oriented agricultural production and diversification,

and community-based management of natural resources. In other words there are certain

areas where it is better to have communities manage the forest resources, whereas

there are other areas that can be commercially exploited. We must strike a balance

between the two."

The government and donors are still generally upbeat about forestry reform. DFW's

Cengel says that once finished, the various departmental bodies will be in a position

to pass on information to the government. At that point, he says, the government

will have to prove its good faith.

Historically, good faith has been lacking. Donors and NGOs stress that without political

will to enforce forestry reform - and long-delayed reform of the judiciary to ensure

it is both independent and competent - the exercise will amount to very little.

Ultimately, says one observer, true reform of the forestry sector will prove difficult:

the financial interests of powerful people combine with the fact that most logging

concessions are in remote areas, which hampers monitoring.

The coming months will show whether the carrot and stick of donor funding will coincide

with genuine will to improve the state of Cambodia's forests and, more importantly,

the lives and livelihoods of the people who depend on them. All parties agree that

responsibility for that lies squarely with the government.


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