10 Log Concessions Cut, But Others Loom Large

At least 10 logging contracts covering more than 2 million hectares of land are being canceled in a move to curb illegal activity and better manage the country’s beleaguered forests, government officials told international donors on Wednesday.

Contracts with three companies, including tycoon Teng Bunma’s Thai Boon Rong, have officially been canceled and the other terminations are just awaiting the issuance of the final order, the officials said.

“This shows how serious we are in tackling this issue,” Ministry of Agriculture Secretary of State Chan Tong Yves said at a preparatory meeting in Phnom Penh for a key donors conference in Tokyo next month.

Forestry Director Ty Sokhun later Wednesday upped the figure of cancellations to 12 logging contracts held by nine different companies. Most of the contracts had expired or were being canceled for non-performance. Agriculture Minister Chhea Song said other contracts are under review.

But it was unclear whether the action will have a tangible effect.

A concession list handed out at the preparatory meeting indicated that even with the terminations, nearly 6 million hectares of land remain under contract.

Furthermore, the list released Wednesday shows at least nine concessions totaling nearly 2 million hectares of land were quietly granted to new companies in 1998, despite World Bank pleas for a moratorium until forestry reform is complete. Most represented concession transfers. The list didn’t include a concession granted to Military Region 4 last June in protected Phnom Kulen northeast of Siem Reap nor any other military concession.

Until Wednesday, it was unclear how much land is under contract because the government has been reluctant to publicly release a concession list. Because no map has been released, it remains unclear exactly where the concessions are, and whether they overlap.

In general, donors on Wednesday welcomed the announcement of the canceled contracts and a new Council of Ministers order that gives the Ministry of Environment broad watchdog powers and calls for the creation of a tough forestry law.

“Canceling the concessions makes an important contribution to transparency and I applaud efforts in recent weeks to crack down on illegal timber exports,” said British Ambassador George Edgar.

But Edgar expressed concern about the continued involvement of the military in illegal logging, and US Ambassador Kenneth Quinn said that the Ministry of Environment will need more resources to effectively monitor and curtail the activity.

“Are there any plans to give the ministry additional capability to monitor?” asked Quinn. “I think that’s the key to the new approach.”

Forestry reform dominated much of the discussion, although the government also outlined its plans to donors for military, civil service and other reforms. Forestry is expected to be the top agenda item in Tokyo in late February at the Consultative Group meetings in which donors will make critical aid decisions.

Cambodia also is trying to woo the International Monetary Fund, which cut off $60 million in loans beginning in late 1996 in part because of corruption in the forestry sector. An IMF representative is in Cambodia now to assess the situation.

Finance Minister Keat Chhon said that Prime Minister Hun Sen will announce today some specific action against smuggling and illegal logging in the northeast. But he didn’t elaborate.

Global Witness and World Bank-funded consultants predict that Cambodia’s forests will be commercially logged out within five years if current harvesting rates are allowed to continue.

Simon Taylor, a director with the environmental watchdog Global Witness, called the canceled logging contracts a “good gesture.” In a telephone interview from London, Taylor said illegal logging by others was occurring on at least three of the concessions being terminated.

But even more important than canceling concessions, Taylor said, is to take the military out of the logging business and to disclose what concessions have been granted to it. Quinn pushed that issue Wednesday, but received only vague answers.

Sok An, minister of the Council of Ministers, did say in many cases illegal logging has been sanctioned by “armed people.”

Sok An said that the Council of Ministers’ 17-point order issued last Friday against illegal logging will provide important checks and balances, in apparent reference to the Ministry of Environment’s watchdog role. Hun Sen also earlier this month ordered a crackdown on illegal logging.

Chan Tong Yves of the Agriculture Ministry noted that the government will go beyond the recent orders to draft a “special” forestry law.

“The government will use all effort to stop illegal logging. This is the government’s commitment, the prime minister’s commitment,” Chan Tong Yves said.

Sok An said that a forestry law will be drafted within 45 days and “will be a very strong one.”

Quinn also suggested the government confiscate the equipment used in illegal logging, as a way to strike some fear in illegal loggers.

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