Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Conflict over forests getting worse, says USAID

Conflict over forests getting worse, says USAID

Conflict over forests getting worse, says USAID

T he tense confrontation over Cambodia's forests - between those who utilize nature for survival, and those who seek to profit financially from resource exploitation - continues to escalate.

"Actual conflict over forest resources and forest land is increasing in Cambodia and the rate of increase appears likely to accelerate," said a USAID report on Cambodia's forest resources.

The battle lines drawn over use of natural resources are real and dangerous, members of the Phnong ethnic community in Mondulkiri testified in the report.

"Soldiers with guns were sent to tell us that we could not chop trees down in this area and that if we did they would shoot us," their statement said.

But a parallel conflict has emerged, not in the forests but in the offices of Phnom Penh, as government, donors and independent forestry watchdogs do battle over how Cambodia's forest crime will be monitored.

Cambodia's previous forest monitor - Global Witness - was fired by the Cambodian government following what the new forest monitor - SGS - describes as a series of tense disputes.

"Global Witness is an advocacy agency and therefore saw monitoring as a means of fulfilling their aim - saving the forests," said Bob Tennent, SGS Forest Project Manager. "Thus they embarrassed the government on a number of occasions which led to their contract being terminated."

SGS, which got the monitoring job two years ago after Global Witness' dismissal, views its role as being to work with the government and increase the capacity of the state to control their natural resource exploitation.

"We [SGS] see our role as working with the government," Tennent said. "We have gradually built up trust with them and they now open up their books and show us what is going on."

He said increasing cooperation with the government had led to better reporting of forest crime.

"People don't report forest crime," he said. "This is because, as with any bureaucratic structure, no individual wants to be the bearer of bad news. But also, people are concerned for their personal safety - reporting forest crime can be a dangerous business. Consequently, news can take a long time to percolate up. But we [SGS] have been able to go out and report back directly to the Central Forestry Commission."

But the conflict over the independent monitoring of forest crime has had financial ramifications that could impair observation of the real conflict over forest resources, he said.

"When the government decided to watch the forests, donors said they wanted an independent monitor - and that they would fund it. However, when SGS were appointed, Global Witness - the previous monitor - were highly critical. In response, the donors withheld their funds. The Government stepped in and funded SGS for the first two years using loan funds directed through the Forest Concession Management. This money finished last year."

Global Witness says the withdrawal of donor support after its dismissal was a result of the Cambodian Government violating the terms of their agreement.

"There were major problems related to the lack of cooperation," the Global Witness website states. "In April 2003 the Cambodian government terminated Global Witness' role as official independent monitor - breaching the World Bank conditions for further disbursement of World Bank Structural Adjustment Credit to Cambodia."

The monitoring framework has undoubtedly been thrown into flux. Prime Minister Hun Sen used his opening speech at the CG meeting to draw attention to the government's efforts to protect Cambodia's common resources and their investment in monitoring, and even included a barbed plea for funds until a new monitoring solution can be agreed.

"The Royal Government has committed to implement policy and concrete measures to ensure continuous and sustainable resource use, including inspection and prevention of logging and illegal log trade," he said. "With this last point, I would like to emphasize that the government has taken a position of extending a contract to the monitor of logging crimes, in case there is a development partner who would like to provide grant for such a contract extension until there is a concrete decision on a new mechanism."

The methods of the former and current forest independent monitors diverge, with SGS taking a less confrontational approach.

"SGS doesn't focus on naming individuals or accusations of right and wrong," Tennent said. "Instead the focus is on literally bringing the problem to the attention of the Forestry Authority. It is not our job to apportion blame - it is our responsibility to monitor the forests."

In contrast, Global Witness in a recent letter to the CG donors (written in conjunction with four other NGOs) draws attention very firmly to those it believes are responsible for forest crime.

"In tandem with greater restrictions on political freedoms, there has been an increase in the misuse of natural resources and other public assets by elite families and crony companies," the letter read. "Over the past year Cambodia has seen a steep rise in land conflict to the detriment of the rural poor. Several of the most serious cases center on economic land and industrial concessions controlled by foreign firms and private individuals, even some senators."

The ultimate aim of forest monitoring is to safeguard the future of Cambodia's natural resources; yet again the former and current forest monitors have very different views of what can be done.

Eradicating forest crime entirely is not on the agenda for SGS.

"There seems to be a very optimistic view of forest crime in Cambodia - but you cannot ever totally stop forest crime," Tennent said. "Everywhere you have forests, you will have forest crime. You will never totally eliminate it. This is an unrealistic goal. Even in the US they still have forest crime. If the US can't totally eliminate it why should we imagine Cambodia could?"

Despite its dismissal, Global Witness remains dedicated to a more idealistic mandate.

"Global Witness is campaigning to terminate the contracts of all concessionaires that have committed a serious contractual breach, especially with regard to extensive illegal logging," it says. "While forest crimes are now being recorded, there are very few examples of any court cases arising from the findings. Well connected individuals are still able to log illegally with impunity."

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