Cambodia's tropical forests, the primary financial fuel for the country's 27 year civil war, continue to be fought over by the Cambodian Government (RGC), Cambodian army, rival political factions, Pol Pot's hardline Khmer Rouge (KR), KR defectors and Thai logging companies, according to A Tug of War, the Struggle to Protect Cambodia's Forests, a briefing document released today by British environment and human rights group Global Witness.
Timber, Cambodia's most valuable natural resource, has been used to create immense personal wealth for the country's political and military leaders and timber businessmen and, as KR allegiances change, has lead to a race to control timber rich territory. But hundreds of millions of dollars of timber revenue simply disappear, a matter of great concern to Cambodia's international donors, including the UK and the EU, who contribute over 40% of the country's US$650 million annual budget.
In October 1996 the failure by the RGC to keep promises made to the donors to reform forestry policy, resulted in the IMF's cancellation of a US$20 million loan. An IMF mission to Cambodia is currently considering its future support for the country, and has received an ultimatum from the country's second Prime Minister, Hun Sen, threatening to resume past logging practices if they refuse to release more money.
But there are concerns about the RGC's true commitment to reform. The armed forces run their own logging operations to raise funds, and hire themselves out to protect others, foreign concessionaires are logging in national parks and are cutting around five times the maximum allowable cut in their concessions. On top of this Cambodia's co-Prime Ministers recently and inexplicably allowed five foreign companies a 100% export duty exemption for timber products, against the wishes of their own Finance Ministry, attracting the anger of the IMF and other donors.
In December 1996 Thai loggers removed over 120,000m3 of illegally felled logs, worth between US$40 -90 million, from Cambodian territory before the RGC closed the border on 31st December 1996, stranding remaining timber supplies. Despite the fact that they have effectively stolen the timber, the Thai loggers are pressuring their government to reopen the border to retrieve remaining logs. "With one hand Thailand pledges its cooperation with Cambodia, but with the other it strips the country of its wealth with complicity to the highest levels," said Charmian Gooch of Global Witness.
"The preservation and management of Cambodia's forests are central to the country's reconstruction after suffering years of genocide and civil war. Despite encouraging progress recently, the forests will be gone in ten years at the current rate of destruction. The RGC and the donors must continue working together to avoid this outcome," said Global Witness' Patrick Alley.
Press Release / March 3, 1997