Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Forestry decisions leave NGOs aghast

Forestry decisions leave NGOs aghast

Forestry decisions leave NGOs aghast

Forestry experts have sharply criticized the government for undermining its own

conservation laws after two recent decisions that conflict with the donor-driven

forestry reform agenda.

Their comments came after Ty Sokhun,

director-general of the Department of Forestry and Wildlife (DFW), announced on

October 29 he had dropped a key provision contained in the reform

process.

Logging companies have been banned from cutting trees since

January while their forest management plans (FMPs) are assessed. Each plan is

divided into three sections: the one-year annual coupe, the five-year

compartmental level, and the 25-year strategic level.

Sokhun decided the

companies need not submit the five-year plan. NGOs said this would re-open the

door to unsustainable logging, since that provision was meant to ensure

companies did not walk away from concessions after harvesting only the most

valuable timber.

The DFW head also announced that the period for public

review of the FMPs would begin on November 11 and end on November 30. That

coincides with the annual Water Festival, effectively leaving only two weeks for

affected communities around the country to examine the complicated

documents.

In discussions with conservation groups in June this year, the

World Bank's senior regional forestry expert Bill Magrath, told them that a

two-week review period would be "grossly inadequate".

A report issued

last month by donor-funded advisors working with DFW recommended at least six

months for public comment.

NGOs said the window was an impossible

timeframe to review adequately the thousands of pages of detailed logging plans

that cover nearly a quarter of the country and will affect 3 million

people.

"Our position is that the disclosure is not really a disclosure,"

said Andrew Cock, forest policy advisor with NGO Forum. "It amounts to nothing

because the period is so short and the DFW is taking no

responsibility."

He said it appeared the government did not want to go

another year without logging, and was doing whatever it could to resume

operations.

Sokhun dropped the bombshell to donors and NGOs at a

presentation by DFW on the country's new forestry law on October 29. He told

them that his department interpreted the law as not requiring any sort of

medium-term planning by logging concessionaires.

However, Dennis Cengel,

an advisor at DFW, disagreed with that assessment, which he said was only one

interpretation. Discussions, he said, were continuing.

"The argument that

DFW made at the presentation was that the Forestry Law doesn't allow for a

compartment level plan," said Cengel. "We believe that it does. Nothing in the

language doesn't allow it."

The law directs all logging agreements to

include Environmental and Social Impact Assessments, the volume and type of

timber products to be harvested, and a "description of obligations ... at the

coupe [annual] and bloc [25 year] levels.

But it makes no explicit

mention of the five-year level plans considered by many to be the most

important.

"The strategy is useless without rigorous planning on the

compartment level," said Cock. "If the [logging companies] divide their

concessions into these five-year plans, it would show definitively that the

concessions are not viable."

The government's forest crime monitor,

Global Witness, said Sokhun's interpretation was plainly wrong. The Forestry Law

states that FMPs must include "other conditions set by the RGC or the Forest

Administration".

Since the forest management sub-decree from 2000

requires concessionaires to prepare compartmental level plans, the decision was

simply a way to take what remains of the country's forests.

"They are

basically cleaning out the last bits of forest that have been severely

degraded," said Eva Galabru of Global Witness. "Basically, commercially,

Cambodia is all done.

Since the October 29 meeting, government officials

have suggested the November 30 deadline might be extended, but only for those

communities inside concession areas. The date will be enforced for everyone

else. DFW insists the plan is consistent with the principles of transparency

required by the Forestry Law.

"We have a very clear program to manage

forestry concessions," Sokhun told the Post. "Forestry reforms are even better

than they were before."

It remains to be seen how the World Bank will

respond to this latest crisis in the country's donor-driven forestry reform

program. It has twice this year delayed release of the final tranche of the

Structural Adjustment Credit (SAC) worth $15 million.

In May the World

Bank's regional head Ian Porter bluntly told the government the money would not

be handed over unless there was public disclosure of FMPs, among other

conditions.

While some action has been taken on its demands, critics

charge that the situation has not changed - either on the ground or in the back

rooms of government ministries.

But the World Bank's Magrath maintained

that the Bank's drive for forestry reform had shown results.

"Without the

Bank's initiative, I am quite sure we would still be talking about whether

disclosure would take place at all," Magrath said.

The Bank has now

scheduled release of the SAC for January 31, but that could yet change, said

Magrath, as delivery was contingent on the completion of the government's

"agreed program of actions".

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