Strong words to head an article but, considering the chain saw massacre that is going
on with no benefit to the country, perhaps well merited.
Early descriptions of Cambodia all refer to its rain forest cover, its rich bio-diversity
and pristine beauty. Of like areas in the world, Cambodia's forest ecosystem is not
only among those considered unique by environmentalists but, it is also the largest
undisturbed bloc of its kind extant in Asia.
Even as late as the mid-sixties slightly less than three-quarters of the country
(13.2 million hectares) was still forest. Recent statistics tell a different, sadder
story. Current satellite extrapolations suggest the evergreen woods now covers a
low of 49 per cent (8.9 million ha.), of which only 4 million hectares is still primary
forest. Although statistics continue to be debatable both in terms of comparison
over time and reliability, the overall order of magnitude indicates a staggering
drop of almost one-third within the space of only 27 years.
Whatever quibbles experts may have over the estimates, unquestionable is the fact
that at least six important provinces: Kompong Chnang, Kompong Speu, Kandal, Prey
Veng, Takeo and Svay Rieng, have been so denuded that they now experience, for the
first time, severe fire-wood supply problems. There are also numerous reports of
refugees expressing bewilderment at the absence of trees around or adjacent to the
old home villages they returned to.
More dramatically, an aerial panorama of the area controlled by the Khmer Rouge around
Pailin and the Thai-Cambodian border taken at the end of 1992, revealed such a degree
of environmental devastation that UNTAC deliberately withheld it from public distribution.
Those who saw the film confirmed scenes far worse than reports had led them to believe
saying it paralleled some of the world's worst examples of unregulated strip mining.
What has happened to Cambodia's forest wealth, and does it really matter? This article
argues that the way this issue is handled has far-reaching consequences. It will
prove a critical indicator of whether policy attempts to place Cambodia on the road
to sustainable economic development will prove successful. It will also show the
extent to which not only Cambodians care for their country but the degrees of responsibility
felt by the outside world.
This dual interest stems from the fact that though only Cambodians are now to be
responsible for their own destiny-under the provisions of the Paris Peace Agreements-environmental
models show that world-wide deforestation may cause global warming; what happens
in Cambodia is thus of concern to us all.
Cambodia's tropical woods today present a sorry spectacle of plunder, neglect and
ignorance. Relatively small government sponsored timber extraction for export, fuel
wood collection, shifting cultivation and related brush fires were the main elements
behind forest loss in the past, apart from the environmental consequences of the
Khmer Rouge's half-baked policies.
Since 1991, massive uncontrolled logging has grown to the point that there are serious
doubts as to Cambodia's primary forest regeneration possibilities. In addition to
this potential resource loss, the August 1991 flash flood and reports of heavy siltation
of the Tonle Sap lake, augured a disturbing reminder of the well-known downward spiral:
unregulated deforestation results in erosion and silting, leading to flooding followed
by drought which, in turn, causes more erosion thus worsening the cycle. Unless arrested,
a point can be reached-as in Haiti-where desertification makes reforestation impossible.
How has Cambodia arrived at such a sorry pass so quickly? The signing of the Paris
Peace Accords had two unfortunate by-products, which should have been foreseen. The
unregulated passage from a command-type economy to one determined by market forces
left the country wide open to short term foreign business exploitation. In addition,
SOC's unfunded budget deficit together with each factions desire to obtain quick
cash and hard currency led to an unprecedented degree of "asset stripping"
of which the sale of standing timber concessions were among the most notorious. The
net result: within the space of 18 months, practically all Cambodia's actual and
potential natural resources are under some sort of unaccountable foreign control.
The rank exploitation of Cambodia's prime timber is not only worrisome and visible
but it's a salutary example of what was allowed to happen during the uncontrolled
"free for all" brought about by the power vacuum between the signing of
the peace agreement and elections for a new government. With the benefit of hindsight,
it is clear that the provisions of the Paris Agreements gave little authority to
UNTAC either to insitute any viable control over Cambodia's known natural resources
nor to effectively police the way granted concessions were worked. Neither, for well
known reasons, has it been able to exercise any oversight over the areas controlled
by the Khmer Rouge.
External events have compounded these problems. The banning of logging in Thailand
(January 1989), a net importer of tropical hardwoods since 1977, then tightened controls
on domestic logging in Laos (August 1991) together with a timber and sawn wood export
ban in Vietnam (March 1992) unwittingly abetted the rapacious interest of Thai corporations
and illegal Vietnamese groups in Cambodia's "economie sauvage.''
Again, the results of this hiatus in authority are clear. Estimates suggest that,
all told, Cambodian timber exports amounted to 1.5 million cubic meters in 1992,
of which 57 per cent (valued between U.S. $51 million and U.S. $94.6 million, depending
on which valuation figure is chosen, see box), was represented by illegal shipments
to Thailand and Vietnam.
If Laos data for 1991-before the Cambodian plunder really took off-is used for parallel
purposes to suggest what should be a sustainable level of exploitation, then Cambodia's
figure is already between four to seven times what would be acceptable in the country's
long term interest.
Despite the imposition, by the Supreme National Council, of a moratorium on the export
of logs-effective 1 January 1993-and a subsequent quota on sawn timber exports, it
would be optimistic to believe there will be any real slowdown in Cambodia's forest
loss in the immediate future. Even when logging is under licence, the amounts are
still readily exceeded.
During the first five months of 1993, UNTAC reported 103 deliberate violations of
the ban amounting to 67,446 cubic meters and this does not include areas under Khmer
Rouge control. Whether valued at the price Laotians are prepared to pay: U.S. $60/m3
or the current world price: U.S. $110/m3, the sums are considerable, U.S. $404,700/U.S.
$7.2 million. In addition, although only two groups have applied for sawn wood export
licences (SOC and FUNCINPEC), widespread violations of quota licences have been observed
mainly in the Koh Kong area.
The latter, due to an agreement signed about three months ago between the governor
of Koh Kong and his counterpart in Trat, the adjoining province in Thailand. Under
the agreement Thais have free rein with respect to business and immigration in Koh
Kong; as the UNTAC Border Control Unit discovered, there is no quid pro quo from
the Thai side.
The overall level of degradation is further compounded by the way the timber has
been extracted. Unless done by experts, cutting and removing trees unavoidably harms
the surrounding forest. Two examples from major wood rich provinces will suffice
Koh Kong Island: a pristine virtually uninhabited place about three hours for a tug
and log barge from Thai waters, has become a bonanza for loggers abetted by a provincial
governor acting as if he were a law unto himself. Even a short visit is a salutary
experience. The coastline is dotted with dry docks and loading points. Prior to the
elections, six separate uncontrolled operations were in full swing attacking the
island's virgin forest as if there were no tomorrow. Thai workers plus Cambodian
military working as cutters using chain saws and bulldozers mowed down trees indiscriminately.
Commercial logs were then rolled down to the water's edge leaving the rest to rot.
The results speak for themselves: water courses destroyed, paradisiacal beaches wasted,
cutting and skid trails on slopes exceeding the maximum internationally accepted
10 per cent grade; in short, severe environmental damage wherever loggers were operating.
And, at the dry docks, at the time of observation, an estimated 8,000 m3 (U.S. $880,000)
stockpiled awaiting shipment the moment the elections were over.
On the return voyage to UNTAC's naval base at Ream, a Thai registered ship was boarded
off one of the Cambodian islands; its sawn wood cargo of 2,550 m3 worth up to U.S.
$400/m3 (FOB), or U.S. $1 million, according to a quote seen from a Japanese buyer.
Stung Treng Province: a large wooded area in the northeast of the country and sharing
a porous border with Laos is another example of out-of-control extraction. Two features
there make logging particularly low risk and highly profitable. An abundance of valuable
species all within easy access from an unpoliced frontier; active concurrence of
the local authorities and military with buyers representing a "no questions
asked" Laotian government agency.
The work is devastatingly simple. A chain saw cutter fells a selected tree. Then
a truck drives up a bulldozed track, winches it up and drives off to the next one.
With extraction and delivery costs reckoned at U.S. $10/m3, against a Lao buying
price of U.S. $50/m3, and an international price for top quality timber of U.S. $110/m3,
the lack of official interference is not to be wondered at.
According to timber specialists, extraction methods which would have concession operators
shut down and before a court of law elsewhere, are blithely encouraged to take out
as much timber in the shortest time possible regardless of the consequences. Again,
the results are shockingly visible: indiscriminate and poor felling; no attention
paid to waterfalls and streams; no replanting or rehabilitation of logged-over areas;
all a tragic litany of malpractices with 7,000 m3, at the time of passing, stacked
on the Lao frontier ready for onward shipment to Thailand.
Similar activities are reported in provinces adjacent to the Vienamese border where
renegade groups were sending out 2,500/3,000 m3 of logs per day in early 1992. All
told, between 250 and 300,000 m3 were taken out in the full year before the Vietnamese
authorities started to close up the border.
In 1992, and the first part of 1993, illicit logging exports by SOC alone, brought
in around U.S. $3.3 million a month to foreign traders and their Cambodian accomplices
with nothing to show for the State's depleted coffers. Ironically, the total sum
is close to the monthly amount (U.S. $5 million) UNTAC says it will try and find
to pay soldiers and civil servants for the next few months!
The Logging Moratorium, though it has slowed down the trade, has failed to stop it
once UNTAC's enforcement weakness in the face of widespread connivance ranging from
senior government officials to local villagers, was recognized. Although sufficient
evidence and testimony has been recorded to name senior administrators, faction officials
and military commanders involved, UNTAC's apolitical stance during the pre-election
period prevented it from being released. In any case, without the full co-operation
of the Thai, Lao and Vietnamese governments, not to mention Cambodia's upper echelons,
there is a limit-given it cannot seize timber nor penalize violaters-to what UNTAC
In short, the whole story is one of public sector corruption, and lack of political
will combining with private sector greed in neighboring countries. Contrary to what
one might think, given Cambodia's rural poverty, local communities involved derive
no long term benefit, other than a one-off cash injection from temporary employment.
The financially-strapped government, too, derives little benefit except where taken
export duties are paid.
A halt must be called to this plunder. If Cambodia is not to end up like Thailand,
where three-quarters of the land was covered at the beginning of the century, as
against only 28.8 (some estimate 18) per cent forest cover now, fast action is necessary.
A two-pronged approach is likely to bring about the most rapid results which can
then serve as a base to formulate long term strategy.
Domestically, the new government needs to formulate and win nation-wide approval
for an overall policy of sustained development.
Essentially, this means promoting social and economic change in such a way hat the
current generation may meet its needs without compromising those of future generations.
In natural resource terms, this means that no economic activities-whether local or
foreign inspired-should be allowed that do not pass the criteria of sustainability.
As a rule of thumb raw exports, once they have met the proviso, should be encouraged
to move to a value added base.
This is not a "green" argument; it is sound economics.
The Provisional National Government has just agreed to a Programme of Action which
includes "to preserve and protect forestry through the application of strict
regulations concerning the exploitation" and "to control timber export
in line with the laws and regulations in force.'' To be more effective than the ban,
it must be given enforcement teeth. While a first step before a coherent forest policy
can be elaborated, one action is imperative. Today's blatant illegal exploitation
must be stopped, neighboring governments advised accordingly, and reforestation made
an urgent priority, not left to some undetermined future.
External assistance should also be solicited. Not for the reasons usually put forward
in fund raising and aid requests, but because Cambodia's ecosystem needs to be preserved
for global reasons.
At the outset it was noted that Cambodia contains the largest forest bloc in Asia.
This fact has an importance way beyond the country's frontiers; it should be used.
The "green house" theory and climate models all attest that rain forest
are the greatest photo-synthesizing system on land; drawing carbon (CO2) from the
atmosphere and emitting oxygen. More simply, continued large-scale deforestation
will have an undesirable two-fold effect on global warming-something all environmental
experts wish to avoid.
But, if Cambodia's forests can be shown to belong to the world one can equally argue
that Cambodia is effectively exporting, free of charge, a "carbon absorption
service", not to mention preservation of wilderness and diversity of species,
to the global community. If the rich industrial countries logically want Cambodia
to take these considerations into account in planning an optimal forest management
policy, then they should either provide an incentive or pay for the services being
A simple trade-off suggests itself. At the moment, Cambodia is indebted to the OECD
countries-the "rich man's club"-to the tune of at least U.S. $279 million.
In return for wiping out the arrears, Cambodia can then willingly agree to take additional
steps to preserve its unique heritage. At the same time it can solicit advice and
investment to develop "Eco-tourism", perhaps the one economic factor likely
to help the country to both develop and, at the same time, preserve its particular
Cambodia is horribly poor-although the plunder of its forest resources is not driven
by rural poverty. If it is to be turned away from the short-sighted materialism that
characterizes its people today, if it is to implement the words of an American President
83 years ago: "nothing short of defending this country in wartime compares in
importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for
our descendants than it is for us", then it needs to be helped in the only way
the poor are really motivated. Payment for services rendered!