Illegal logging in Cambodia is a prime source of income for the country’s plethora of corrupt officials. The Cambodian army - unaccountably large since the end of civil war and the winding down of its defensive functions - has replaced its military occupations with corrupt practices. The military in densely wooded areas now oversees the illegal logging trade, extorting money from its operators when soldiers are not themselves directly involved in felling and processing the country’s valuable woodland.
Illegal logging in Cambodia is allowed to continue by the authorities empowered to prevent it as its very illegality gives these law enforcers the opportunity to extort money through ad hoc checkpoints and shadow taxation. This state of affairs is self-perpetuating; as long as it is in the interests of the military to enable the practice they are meant to be preventing, they will continue to do so.
These soldiers do not pocket the fees they impose, however. Instead their profits are passed up the food chain to those at the head of the country’s entrenched patronage networks. It is highly placed officials in Phnom Penh, who protect their foot-soldiers from the imposition of legislation against lucrative forest crimes, who reap the rewards of the thriving logging trade.
When honest organisations have been mobilised to implement legislation against forest crimes, such as the certification of regulated operators or bans on logging in protected areas, they have been subject to the ire of those who benefit from the illegal timber trade. Law enforcement teams led by international NGOs have included Floral and Fauna International (FFI) which works with Ministry of Environment (MoE) officials responsible for managing the Aural wildlife sanctuary, while Conservation International (CI) cooperates with officials from the Forest Administration (FA) and military police across the Cardamom Mountain range in southwestern Cambodia. A Global Witness report, “Taking a Cut”, has shed light on the threats these organisations have faced:
“A sequence of law enforcement operations led by these groups in early 2004 disrupted Aural’s timber trade and contributed to severe friction between soldiers and Ministry of Environment rangers based in Aural. This culminated in a series of armed confrontations over the weekend of 19-21 March. In the worst of these, two people – a villager and a military policeman working with Conservation International – were shot and wounded. In the aftermath, FFI suspended their activities in Aural and their Ministry of Environment counterparts likewise withdrew from the area. At this point, efforts to enforce the law within the wildlife sanctuary effectively ceased.”
Government ineffectiveness in dealing with forest crimes represents a failure to fulfil international commitments under the 2001 East Asian Ministerial Declaration on Forest Law Enforcement and Governance (FLEG). Similarly, the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention and the UN Convention Against Corruption stipulate conditions which Cambodia’s de facto logging operations are in clear breach of. International law is only as meaningful as the commitments governments make to enforcing it.
In Tasmania, well-organised supporters of the Green party, which is a pivotal coalition partner in the government, have used the prescriptions of the Forest Stewardship Council to influence the export market for the country’s timber. They have lobbied Japan and Australia’s other Asian customers to only accept imports of timber certified by the FSC, a worldwide body promoting sustainable forestry, thereby cutting unenvironmental operators off at the source. Cambodia does not exhibit such a commitment among its own civil society.
While the World Bank and other international donors have been too permissive in their lending to the country. Stringent loan conditions have been overlooked and development capital has been given to Cambodia despite poor commitment to its stated intentions to regulate forest industry and implement sustainable policies.
Depletion of Cambodia’s forests will not only degrade the country’s precious natural environment, urban populations dependent on non-timber forest livelihoods will be deprived of the means to subsist in the long-term. Depletion of the forests directly counteracts rural development; many sustainable projects such as agriculture and fishing are being threatened by the short term gains being made by irresponsible profiteers.
The corrupt motivations of military and public officials have spread like wildfire through the country. As long as well-intended regulation is suspended in favour of profits, all institutional accountability in Cambodia will be eroded. If no regulatory infrastructure can be implemented in this one important area, there is just as little hope that the country will be able to cultivate healthy systems of democracy or justice. In a country reputed for its culture of impunity, much needs to be done to establish equitable regulation in every sector of governance, business and military conduct.