UN Presses Ministry to Protect Hill Tribes in Logging Dispute

UN human rights officials are seeking to reverse the government’s position on new logging concessions, in a push for the rights of the indigenous people in northeast Cambodia.

A request for a meeting with Ministry of Agriculture officials follows correspondence in which the two parties differed sharply over replacing the 1.4-million hec­tare concession lost by Macro Pan­in of Indonesia. That concession overlapped with land historically occupied by hill tribes.

In a Feb 6 letter, the Cambodia office of the UN High Commis­sioner for Human Rights urged the government not to grant new concessions before hill-tribe needs are considered and before World Bank-funded forestry reform projects completed.

But in a two-page response dated Feb 23, Agriculture Min­ister Tao Seng Huor firmly stated that granting new concessions would help el­im­inate illegal logging and im­prove the livelihood of the indigenous people in part by creating job opportunities.

“I am pleased we got a detailed response [from Tao Seng Huor],” Rosemary McCreery, director of the Cambodia office, said last week. But she said she was concerned that the letter didn’t address the issue of first consulting with the hill tribes to determine their needs and de­sires.

“Those issues are avoided, so we seek to meet with the minister to discuss these things again,” McCreery said. “It’s not that the government is setting out to harm the hill tribes, but unfortunately the hill tribes are standing between logging interests and a large amount of money.”

McCreery also noted that the record shows that industrial activity in the area hasn’t created many jobs for hill-tribe people.

The debate comes at a time when environmental watchdog Global Witness has charged that top Cambodian and Vietnamese government officials are colluding on an illegal timber trade worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

In his letter, Tao Seng Huor said the two prime ministers pay attention to people’s rights, “especially ethnic minorities,” but the UN’s request to grant no new con­cessions “can have negative effects that you are not aware of.”

He said that Macro Panin’s failure to start operations cost the government money and created a situation ripe for illegal logging.

To actually fight “anarchic” logging and “improve the very difficult living conditions of the people, the government has decided to redistribute the concessions to companies that have the capacity and experience in forest management,” Tao Seng Huor wrote.

The new concession agreements, he said, will require companies to have cultivation plans consistent with protecting the environment, to invest in wood-processing factories and to reconstruct infrastructure such as the national road from Stung Treng to the Vietnamese border.

Patrick Alley, a Global Witness director, recently said military-controlled logging is stripping the most valuable wood out of the forest. “Conces­sion­­aires will have no options but to use lower-grade wood. What will end up is complete deforestation,” he said.

The government already has signed a 350,000-hectare concession with Pheapimex-Fuchan, a Taiwanese company that Global Wit­ness calls the worst concessionaire in Cambodia. Tycoon Teng Bun­ma’s Thai Boon Roong Co is seek­ing a 330,000-hectare concession in the area. It was un­clear late last week whether the government had signed any new ag­ree­ments.

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