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Rape of Cambodia: The Timber Plunder Economy

Rape of Cambodia: The Timber Plunder Economy

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

as illustration.

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

can do.

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

cultural identity.

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!


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