A twenty-percent budget bump for the Environment Ministry, cash for community forests, zero tolerance for illegal loggers, support for tigers and an excavator for a monk.
These were among the vows made by Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday at the second annual National Forum on the Protection and Conservation of Natural Resources at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh.
The event, launched last year, once again gave activists, NGO leaders and stakeholders from civil society a chance to air their concerns directly to Hun Sen, who has long faced criticism for presiding over years of rampant illegal logging, land grabbing and ecological degradation.
After remarks by Environment Minister Say Sam Al, who noted the successful deployment of the 300 new rangers promised at last year’s forum, the premier, once again, delivered a lengthy monologue before fielding questions from members of the 800-strong audience – at least some who were contacted in advance to discuss their queries.
During the four-hour address, the premier rejected suggestions “Cambodia’s forest had disappeared”, claiming forest cover was increasing with the help of a million hectares of rubber plantations, which are among the agro-industries counted by the government as constituting “forest”.
He also took aim at logging barons, saying logging was akin to “hacking” his “head”, while declaring authorities were “not to tolerate” perpetrators of the trade which, according to recent Vietnamese customs figures, remains substantial despite a year-long crackdown.
He criticised NGOs, accusing them of diverting money to highly paid foreign staff instead of recruiting locals; lashed out at investigative group Global Witness, which has published several reports about politically-connected logging cartels; and also took a veiled dig at political opponents with a warning that the armed forces were “in my hands”.
In response to questions, the premier then began making pledges. These included $1,000 each for more than 300 communities to manage local forests, a 20 percent budget increase for the Environment Ministry next year and an agreement to support long-gestating plans to reintroduce tigers in Mondulkiri province.
Oddar Meanchey-based monk and Equator Prize-winning environmentalist Bun Salut, meanwhile, was promised an excavator to assist his environmental protection work after raising the issue during question time.
Attendee Tracy Farrell, regional director of the Greater Mekong Program for Conservation International, said that although there were some “small things” promised, groups were “hoping for something more”.
She said deployment of more rangers and the drafting of an environmental code were noticeable improvements since last year’s forum, though with evidence of significant logging continuing to emerge, she called rhetoric about stopping the practice “more of the same”.
“Overall, since last year there seems to have been some progress made from the first forum, but at the second forum, there seems to have been more of a focus on the community level, which is great, but it would have also been nice to have more attention on overall enforcement,” Farrell said.
Additional reporting by Shaun Turton