British environmentalists Global Witness applaud the measures taken to
clear up the anarchy in Cambodian forests - the future will tell if they will work.
THE Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) and members of the Consultative Group on Cambodia
(CG), who met recently in Tokyo for the first CG meeting, should be congratulated
for their initiatives on Cambodia's illegal timber trade. This is one of the first
real attempts in recent years by members of the international community to work together
to deal with a serious and controversial issue in a consistent manner and the RGC,
which also appear finally willing to deal with this problem and accord it the urgency
it desperately needs. Tokyo has put the timber trade firmly on the map of crucial
issues that need to be dealt with for Cambodia and Cambodians to reap the full benefits
of development efforts currently taking place.
Just before the CG meeting in Tokyo the RGC called its second pre-CG meeting in Phnom
Penh to mitigate mounting donor concern about forestry issues and particularly the
"million meter" deal signed by the two Prime Ministers. The meeting announced
the formation of a Steering Committee (headed by the two PMs) and a Secretariat (with
representation from key ministries), later confirmed by the two PMs' July 3rd sub-decree.
Together with statements from key donors and the RGC at the CG meeting in Tokyo the
following week, this is very encouraging. Whilst Global Witness is pleased to see
these positive developments, it is important to stress that we are not yet "out
of the woods" on this issue. There remain key questions and elements of procedure
which simply have not been addressed, and in the positive climate following the CG,
these may be swept under the carpet, both by the RGC and CG members.
At the Tokyo meeting both RGC and CG members stressed that the Steering Committee
and Secretariat, would follow the guidelines as defined by the World Bank/UNDP/FAO
Forest Policy Assessment. Many aspects of this study are encouraging, especially
the inescapable conclusion that there should be a full moratorium on cutting and
export of timber and the application of the "precautionary principle" in
decision making. However, this document contains serious errors which, coupled with
the use of out-of-date information, means that to use the Forest Policy Assessment
as the sole basis for Cambodia's future forest policy would be counter to the precautionary
Despite assurances given at the CG meeting, there is nothing in the text of the July
3rd sub-decree, indicating that the Steering Committee will follow the guidelines
given in the Forest Policy Assessment. It does not indicate how the Committee will
make decisions - whether it requires unanimity or a majority vote. This lack of clarity
casts doubt on the transparency of the decision making process. It should not be
forgotten that many members of the Steering Committee and its Secretariat have been
implicated in illegal timber trade activities, and that previous committees have
achieved little and often made matters worse.
In addition, the problem with over 800,000 cubic meters of "already cut logs"
along the Thai border has not been adequately addressed. Whilst discussing these
points with some delegate members in Tokyo it became clear that to some, these deals
have become a side-issue. One could not help getting the impression that to focus
on the deals would "get in the way" of RGC efforts to set up a properly
functioning Steering Committee and Secretariat, when it fact it is the first test
of the RGC's commitment to deal with corruption. This begs the question: Why are
the donors trying to treat a deal which will fund the KR's war effort and reward
ministerial and corporate corruption, as a side-issue?
The facts show that the "million meter" deal is not a side issue, but one
which is central to Cambodia's illegal timber trade and its impacts. The original
deals, signed by the two PMs earlier this year, were for 18 Thai companies, operating
along the Thai-Cambodian border. Of the 18, only the BLP Company had a semi-legitimate
"concession", as indicated by its appearance on the Ministry of Agriculture
list, made public in December 1995.
Before the "million meter" deal was signed, the RGC had devised a system
to deal with "already felled timber" in RGC-controlled Cambodia. An inventory
of felled timber in RGC areas was prepared, with the timber to be auctioned to highest
bidder. Companies with winning bids would then be awarded a one-off export permit
to be strictly controlled over a short time period. The inventory showed there to
be approximately 331,000 cubic meters of felled timber in RGC-controlled areas. If
this strategy had been followed, the Ministry of Finance could have realized much
needed revenue from a source which would otherwise have been wasted without promoting
further cutting, which has occurred in the past. Until the "million meter"
deal was signed, it could have succeeded.
Global Witness has obtained a list of 15 (out of a reported 16) Thai based timber
companies which are due to receive permits for export to Thailand. These companies
supplied "deals" of their timber "stockpiles" in "portfolios"
to the Ministry of Agriculture by the Ministry's cut-off date of June 30th 1996.
The 15 companies make interesting reading.
The BLP company is now expected to receive only 71,000 cubic meters - a far cry from
its original request of 225,000 cubic meters. At least this company appears to have
been checked out, and its current request is within the bounds of possibility. BLP
expects to obtain its logs from the RGC-controlled area of Cambodia, meaning independent
monitors could ensure it complies with regulations.
The total volume allocated to the 15 companies, including BLP, is 877,910 cubic meters.
It is likely the new volumes requested by the other companies are the same as those
they requested in the original "million meter" deal (with the exception
of Pannee Enterprise, not on the original list), as including BLP's 71,000 cubic
meters, they total 871,316 m3 - a discrepancy of only 6,594 m3. This strongly implies
that the Ministry of Agriculture has accepted the original "million meter"
deal requests as "portfolio" evidence by 13 of the other 14 companies on
the new list. There are other factors which should be considered:
Company/KR links. Other than BLP, of the remaining 14 companies, at least 12 operate
in Khmer Rouge (KR) areas of control, leaving two, for which their log source is
unclear. If these companies export their timber the KR will generate around $35 million.
Of great significance are the two ways the KR generate revenue from timber. Initially,
they are paid by companies for the right to cut in their areas of control and influence,
which is followed by a second payment, roughly equivalent to the first, for the right
to export the logs. This means that the KR are already benefiting from these deals.
The longer the companies believe they will be able to retrieve their timber, the
more they will continue to cut, and the more revenue the KR will generate.
Do the companies have logs? Global Witness' April 1996 investigation along the Thai-Cambodian
border (supported by evidence obtained by the BBC in May), showed company claims
about log stockpiles should be dismissed. Companies on the "million meter"
deal and the new list, fit into a number of categories: 1) Some are already known
to us, as we have documented and filmed their illegal activities along the border
for one and a half years. Companies questioned stated that they did not have "already
felled" timber, but were fresh cutting at that time. 2) They did not exist in
their current location in late November/early December 1995. It is clearly not possible
for such companies to have large stockpiles of timber cut before 30th April 1995.
3) There are numerous other companies which are not on the "million meter"
deal, or the new list, or the possession of a semi-legitimate "concession"
(as defined above), which were fresh cutting and gearing up to import timber.
RGC verification. The RGC has stated that the companies' "portfolios will be
checked in the field by Cambodian officials and independent monitors, followed by
an arrangement whereby the Forestry Department will stamp the verified logs for export.
For at least 12 of the companies on the new list, in KR zones, RGC officials will
be unable to check their claims. Furthermore in the past, Forestry Department "stamp
hammers" have been frequently "hired out" to "legalize"
illegal logs for $5 per cubic meter. So, even if it is possible to visit a particular
company's rest area, Forestry Department approval of a stockpile's legitimacy will
be open to question. BLP is the only company on the new list which could be checked
in this way.
The Role of Thailand. The RGC have implied that Thailand will assist with a control
system on their side of the border - or, as Tao Seng Huor has declared, a "double
control system", but it is not quite clear what this means. However, Thailand
has consistently mislead the international community regarding the timber trade from
Cambodia, as we have documented on every border investigation. Comments by Thai Prime
Minister Banharn recently, where he stated that Cambodians will not be able to monitor
the Thai side of the border, add further doubts to Thai "commitments" to
help solve this problem. More recently, the Thais have opened An Mah pass, to allow
logs to enter Thailand, and have stated it will remain open to log imports until
July 25th 1997 - seven months past the RGC's new December 31st 1996 timber export
ban. This seven month extension is likely to stimulate illegal cutting and export
It is not only trade with the KR which is worrying. The small Thai fishing harbor
of Kalapandha (Trat province) is currently importing 15,000 m3 of rough cut timber
per week from RGC controlled Koh Kong - annually, this is more than double the volume
identified by the inventory for RGC-controlled Cambodia. Thai Customs have stated
that these imports are illegal, yet this is not their "concern". Thai police
and military vessels, moored within meters of unloading timber boats, are also not
"concerned". Thus, neither the Thai authorities, or the RCAF are making
any effort to halt this significant trade, a large proportion of which generates
income for the KR. It is scandalous that the trade through this harbor is comparable
with that of the "million meter" deal, and yet it has been consistently
ignored by the Thai Government, the RGC, and the entire donor community.
The implications of the Tokyo meeting mean that Cambodian now has the potential for
a "fresh start". In partnership with CG members, the RGC must demonstrate
its words mean a real commitment for positive change in the forestry sector. Not
only must there be no further "exception" to RGC regulations, but the new
Steering Committee must be seen to work. One way for the Committee to demonstrate
its intent would be to begin regular, public reports, whereby it is made clear what
the Committee intends to do, and how it intends to do it. Results should be demonstrable.
Finally, it is crucial that both the RGC and CG members recognize the "million
meter" deal and the new company list, with the possible exception of BLP, as
defacto new concessions (not permits for felled timber), which are raising money
for the KR and prolonging the Cambodian conflict. As such, the only responsible move
which should be contemplated, is the immediate and full termination of all arrangements
with these companies, and a permanent export ban on all timber from KR areas of control.