FORESTRY officials plan to carve out three new administrative zones in the northwest in a bid to ramp up efforts against illegal logging, the director of the Forestry Administration said Sunday.
Chheng Kim Son said he has asked the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries for permission to split the existing Siem Reap cantonment into three separate jurisdictions covering Siem Reap, Banteay Meanchey and Oddar Meanchey provinces. Currently, oversight in the three areas falls under the same umbrella, leaving officials struggling to cover one of the administration’s largest cantonments, Chheng Kim Son said.
“We will change it from one large jurisdiction into three smaller ones,” he said. “[Officials] can move and monitor their jurisdictions faster and more effectively with a smaller area.”
He added that the potential change was part of a broader strategy to implement an ongoing crackdown on illegal logging.
“We will reform our work in order to govern well and make it easier to control illegal logging activities, because in the past, it was very difficult for us to govern” such a large area, he said.
Chheng Kim Son said he was unsure when the change would be enacted, and that he had not received a response to a proposal sent to the ministry. Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun could not be reached for comment Sunday.
If approved, the move would increase the number of forestry cantonments – subdivisions falling under the administration’s four broad
inspectorates – to 17.
Under the spotlight
Chheng Kim Son was thrust to the forefront of the government’s public campaign against illegal logging in April, after Prime Minister Hun Sen sacked his predecessor, Ty Sokun, over concerns that insufficient steps had been taken to eradicate the practice. Since then, it has been unclear what specific changes Chheng Kim Son planned to implement in the role.
On Sunday, some observers working in the affected areas said the decision to split the Siem Reap cantonment into more manageable jurisdictions was a good move.
“[Forestry officials] will be closer to the ground, and they can communicate faster with each other,” said Srey Naren, the coordinator in Oddar Meanchey for local rights group Adhoc.
“When their main office is in Siem Reap province, officials have to spend more money and more time to get from one place to another. When they stay in one smaller jurisdiction, their effectiveness will be better.”
Srey Naren went on to say that several much-publicised crackdowns on illegal logging across the country appear to be having some effect.
“Logging is still continuing, but it is less than before along the border” with Thailand, he said.
However, he warned that some local government officials are among those profiting from corrupt logging practices. “Local authorities are deforesting a huge portion of the forest area,” he said.
“We are concerned about this. It is reported in meetings, but so far there has been no action to punish these officials.”
Court officials in other parts of the country say they are making efforts to prosecute those implicated in illegal logging.
In Ratanakkiri, the provincial court director said Sunday that he had summoned various forestry officials for questioning with regard to roughly 45 illegal logging cases. Lu Susambath said he plans to ask the officials why no arrests have been made in connection with any of the cases.
“We have only seen wood taken as evidence sent to the courthouses, while no wood vendors or businessmen have been arrested,” said Lu Susambath, who declined to name the officials he had called for questioning.
In Preah Vihear province, court officials reported last week that authorities had enacted 20 illegal logging raids so far this year, but that none of the cases had led to prosecutions.
Court officials in Koh Kong last week said they plan to question two forestry officials who are suspected of involvement in an illegal logging operation.
Observers such as Bunra Seng, the country director of the NGO Conservation International, say the crackdowns still appear to be having some effect, even if few prosecutions have resulted from them.
But he also said that authorities need to focus on addressing the fact that a robust consumer demand for illegal timber is helping to drive the covert industry.
“The government has to find a way to reduce or stop market demand” for illegal timber, he said.
“In this case, people find many ways in order to transport the timber because the price is very high.”