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Government muzzles forest watchdog

Government muzzles forest watchdog

Cambodia's new forest crimes monitor, SGS, will officially start its new role on February 1, but the multi-national company will act more as "accountants" of government forces rather than active investigators of illegal logging, said a senior SGS official.

Societe Generale de Surveillance was awarded the contract to be independent monitor of the government's forestry unit in November last year after the outspoken British-based environmental organization Global Witness was dismissed from the role.

The terms of reference SGS will work under are more narrowly defined than those of Global Witness, in what critics say is a watering down of the monitoring role. The new contract restricts when SGS can publicize concerns it has about illegal activities and requires government representatives to "facilitate" any field investigations made by the French-founded watchdog.

"Corruption within the FA [Forestry Administration] is well documented and the close relationship between Director-General Ty Sokhun and key players in the logging mafia are also well known," said Mike Davis, a spokesperson from Global Witness.

"It is fanciful to imagine that SGS will not come under severe pressure from their paymasters to turn a blind eye to these problems, which are underlying the continued decimation of Cambodia's forests," said Davis in a January 24 email.

Cambodia's forest coverage has been slashed from an estimated 73 per cent of the country in 1969 to 58 per cent in 1998, according to a Concern report. In 1995 the government awarded 32 forestry concessions covering over 6 million hectares of Cambodia, a scheme that was described as a "total system failure" by the Asian Development Bank in a 2000 review.

In late 1999 Global Witness became the independent monitor and reported widespread breaches of the moratorium on logging that took effect on January 1, 2002. It was dismissed late last year, but continues to investigate and campaign against illegal logging.

Under the new terms of reference, SGS will mostly assess reports of forest crimes it receives from the government, the forestry industry, NGOs, media and civil society, and compare them to the actions taken by the Forest Crime Monitoring and Reporting (FCMR) section of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (MAFF).

It will also accept anonymous reports of forest crimes from people or organizations not wishing to be openly critical of the government forestry unit.

"The Independent Monitor is not obliged to investigate any or all suspected forest crimes reported directly," states an SGS information flyer. "Rather, such reports will be forwarded on to the FCMR teams for investigation and the Independent Monitor will field audit a sample of the reported cases."

Any discrepancies between the forest crimes being reported and the subsequent investigations will be included in a quarterly report to the government which will have 30 days to take appropriate action. Only after this time can the incident be made public.

Under the previous contract Global Witness was able to "disseminate findings at any given time there is non-compliance... or the investigation is seriously flawed."

"Given that SGS, with its limited mandate for field inspections, will most likely not have verified it [FA investigations into reported crimes] either, the public remains in the dark, and the Forest Administration totally unaccountable," said Mike Davis.

Despite the criticism, SGS is optimistic it will be effective in giving "firm criticism if it is necessary."

"We're determined to make it work and I must say we're getting splendid co-operation with the forestry department," said a SGS spokesperson who could not be named for contractual reasons.

The spokesperson for the five person monitoring team said SGS will spend 20 per cent of its time in the field and conduct aerial investigations every three months. Once a year SGS plans to use satellite imagery to check for new logging roads or harvesting in a specific area where illegal activities have been reported. SGS's contract with the MAFF is for three years, with annual reappraisals.

A public meeting will be held by SGS on February 18 at the Intercontinental Hotel. Anyone wishing to report a forest crime or find out more can contact [email protected] or visit the main office at 368, street 163 Phnom Penh.

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