Mekong Utility Watch

Part 4: Reform in the forests

Asian Times Online
August 30, 2002

The final article in Asia Times Online’s xclusive series on the Mekong examines how logging in the ancient rain forests has affected the mighty river, and the people who depend on it.

Part 4 of 4 Phnom Penh – No one knows more than Cambodia’s timber association that the country’s forests are a national asset. After all, logging companies earn tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue, while giving small remittances to the local villages.

Illegal logging and deforestation have resulted in a vast reduction of Cambodia’s precious forestry. Some 2.6 million hectares of forest have disappeared over the past two decades, according to figures from officials at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

“We are aware of this precious natural resource and now are taking steps even though there is a government-mandated moratorium to rein in the rogue companies,” says Henry Kong, chairman of the Cambodian Timber Association.

In any developing economy, it often takes years, even with the efforts of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and thousands of concerned citizens, to effect change. All the data are not in, but the timber association recognizes the problem: almost 50 percent of Cambodia’s forest cover has been logged. While some timber has been cut by villagers for fuel, home construction, and the cultivation of more crops to feed an expanding population base, the logging companies are responsible for decimating much of the timber along the Mekong.

One month ago, Cambodia’s National Assembly enacted a new forestry law making it illegal to cut trees outside concession areas, in national parks, in wildlife sanctuaries or in other designated areas. The legislation imposes heavy penalties of up to 10 years’ jail and fines of up to 100 million riel (US$25,600) for illegal logging.

The law also establishes a traditional tree-planting day, July 9, to be recognized as Arbor Day and even encourages newlyweds to plant two trees before filing for their marriage certificate.

“It is an important instrument for guaranteeing sustainability of our valuable natural heritage,” Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun said upon passage of the bill.

Prior to the passage of this law, Global Witness, a United Kingdom-based environmental and human-rights organization that has been campaigning against illegal logging since 1996, claimed there were 18 logging concessions in Cambodia covering more than 7 million hectares, or almost 45 percent of the country’s land mass.

NGOs have been concerned for years about large-scale granting of land concessions throughout Cambodia and are now especially sensitive about the environmental implications of building a pulp-and-paper-manufacturing facility in the vicinity of the Great Lake, Tonle Sap.

Glen Barry, a conservation biologist and president of, describes an improving situation in Cambodia’s logging industry.

“There have been two highly positive developments regarding Cambodian rain-forest conservation. A huge new 1-million-acre [0.4-million-hectare] protected area has been established, and yet another pledge has been made to rein in illegal logging,” says Barry.

Like other environmentalists, Barry is aware that Cambodia’s forests remain gravely threatened, but he is confident that the country is on a road toward reform and that it is not too late to save the forests.

In 1999, Cambodia was widely regarded as one of the worst timber offenders, clear-cutting massive swaths of jungle to sell abroad or to neighboring countries, including Vietnam. That year, major donors to Cambodia, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank, insisted that their roughly $1.5 billion in aid be linked to major improvements in forest conservation. A large part of that deal guaranteed that Global Witness serve as the independent environmental monitor.

Cambodia initiated efforts to reorient its economy in the mid-1980s after a long, dark shadow fell over its people and landscape. The world has watched with much interest as this poor country has slowly taken the steps to climb out from a deep dark hole into the sunshine offered through economic liberalization and painful and difficult reforms. Although the work is still unfinished, the process has brought about a changing role in both the public and private sectors.

The country’s reforms move at a snail’s pace, largely because the economy is rural and agriculture-based. It’s no wonder that some excesses have been committed during this democratic transition. The World Bank has made clear that the formula for conservation and development is necessary for sustainable management of the country’s forests. But with increasing investment challenges, Cambodia does need a self-regulating and sustainable timber industry.

“Since there was never any baseline, many companies logged without regard for tomorrow’s future,” shrugs Kong at his quiet Phnom Penh timber-association office. An articulate spokesman for the industry, Kong implies that his association’s 17 member companies now wish to become part of the solution rather than being perceived as the problem.

A contentious issue surrounding the law is an annual permit system enabling small-scale loggers to operate in Cambodia’s almost denuded forests. However, there is hope among environmentalists that a sub-decree will designate and protect the Cardamom Mountain Range, which comprises an important watershed, with streams and rivers running off its slopes to feed the Tonle Sap and Mekong River.

The average hardwood tree in Cambodia is almost 150 years old and has a market value of $120 per meter. The upstream timber operations employ nearly 3,000 people and also include a support staff of 800. The average monthly wage is between $80 and $100. There are 14 sawmills operating downstream processing plywood and veneer.

The more than 17 logging companies all recognize and readily admit that past cutting around Tonle Sap has endangered fishing. Of course, wide-scale cutting along the Mekong has contributed to a reduction in the important fisheries and many suggest there is a direct correlation with increased flooding. Constant logging has so eroded the Mekong’s shoreline in places that disastrous flooding is virtually guaranteed; last year’s floods in Cambodia and Vietnam killed 500 people and wiped out herds, crops and orchards.

Upstream in neighboring Laos, trees have also disappeared when dams were built, and that too impacts on the delicate ecosystem of the Mekong and its tributaries.

More Cambodian timber companies are accepting the reality of the mounting pressure from environmental groups such as Global Witness. “Of course the association’s membership acknowledges our responsibility and complicity in the logging of the country’s tropical forests and we are now committed to abiding and supporting the essential forestry reforms,” says Kong.

It is true that the logging companies have provided some economic benefits to those villagers employed by the few companies with lawful concessions. According to the World Rainforest Movement, Cambodia’s timber companies from 1994-2000 generated about $95 million.

As a direct result of donor-country pressure and to address the widening illegal logging trade, Prime Minister Hun Sen imposed at the first of the year a moratorium on any further logging.

“We have succeeded in forestry reforms better than other countries in Asia,” claims Ty Sokhun, director of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Forestry Department. He argues persuasively that no country in the region can match Cambodia’s level of forestry reform, including the development of master plans.

Observers indicate that this has been a challenging year for logging companies. In fact, Hun Sen’s decision to enact a moratorium was largely in response to the fact that logging worsened the Mekong’s flooding conditions last year, costing much more in road and bridge repairs than what was collected in the form of flagging logging royalties.

Grainne Ryder of Toronto-based Probe International and editor of the book The Mekong Currency says “it is generally understood that deforestation increases the volume and speed of runoff, which can lead to more severely damaging floods”.

Government officials agree that the Cambodian Timber Association’s member company’s are complying with Phnom Penh’s request for management plans. “Let us face the facts: our timber industry can participate in sustainable development only if we have an effective sustainable business model,” remarks Kong.

A few timber companies are continuing to cut trees by exploiting a loophole in the moratorium. While logging is banned in forestry concessions, the moratorium wording does not mention land concessions, which several logging companies own.

Cambodia’s forests and its section of the Mekong River are still challenged by poor economics, exploitative policies, and donor-driven environmental consultancy companies, all preaching a gospel of “sustainable development”.

The struggle between man and the environment remains a perennial question. It seems that in this time of peace, Cambodia has more at stake than during the darkest days of war. These “new Cambodians” are determined to reclaim their lives and their invaluable environment from the long shadow cast by Pol Pot.

Part 1: River of controversy
Part 2: Challenge of China
Part 3: Hey, big spender

Categories: Mekong Utility Watch

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