In the final part of a special series on Cambodia's endangered forests, Environment Minister Say Samal tells Channel NewsAsia that large-scale illegal logging in Cambodia has been stopped. This is despite a report that said the timber flow continues between Cambodia and Vietnam even though a ban has been put in place.
PHNOM PENH: The Government of Cambodia is serious about tackling deforestation and “no more wood” has travelled to Vietnam since Prime Minister Hun Sen introduced a timber export ban earlier this year, Environment Minister Say Samal said in an interview with Channel NewsAsia.
“The ban is effective. No more wood is flowing out. Large-scale illegal logging has been stopped. It’s done,” he said.
In January, the Cambodian prime minister imposed a ban on all timber exports to Vietnam and ordered the closure of border crossings to prevent timber smuggling. The move is part of the government’s nationwide crackdown on illegal deforestation.
“Processed wood, for example, which you turn into furniture or finished products, you can take it out. But for semi-finished products, you aren’t allowed to take them out anymore,” Samal explained.
His comment came after US environmental group Forest Trends reported the timber flow still continues despite the ban. The group said 15,000 cubic metres worth about US$12 million still made it through border crossings in February and March, citing the General Department of Vietnam Customs’ statistics.
“Timber still finds its way across the border into Vietnam months after the ban was announced. These are mostly small-scale operators avoiding official channels altogether,” said Kerstin Canby, Forest Policy, Trade and Finance Program Director at Forest Trends.
But the environment minister brushed off the report, claiming it was driven by politics.
“I doubt that it’s true. Some of these reports are politically motivated. It’s groundless. They never come and talk to us or ask us to verify. The majority of these reports are just false,” he said.
The nationwide crackdown on illegal timber trade has been “quite successful”, according to the Cambodian minister, although illegal logging still continues among small-scale operators.
“This is very hard for us to crack down. We admit that this still occurs. But on a large-scale that we used to see, we’ve been able to put a stop to that.”
‘WE HAD PROBLEMS’
In 1990, Cambodia’s forest covered 12.94 million hectares, or about 73 per cent of its total land, according to the World Bank. In a steady downward trend, it shrank to 9.46 million hectares, or 53.6 per cent in 2015.
Deforestation in the country is influenced by several factors. But among the main ones is economic land concessions (ELC), a long-term lease that allows investors to use private state land for large-scale agriculture. The government introduced the scheme to boost the economy and create jobs for local people, resulting in more than 270 ELCs covering at least 1.2 million hectares nationwide.
Concessionaires are allowed to clear forest land for industrial agriculture. They can harvest trees in the premises, process the wood and export it legally. However, many have simply left after depleting the trees. Others allegedly continue using the land to launder timber from outside the permitted area.
“We had problems,” Samal admitted while maintaining the government’s commitment to preserve the country’s biodiversity. “We’re going step by step in protecting our forests.”
And that, he claims, includes conducting land registration, reducing the maximum lease duration from 90 years to 50 years, cracking down on illegal logging, banning timber exports and reviewing all the ELCs to ensure everyone follows the rules.
“For those that didn’t abide by the rules and regulations, we cancelled the investments altogether. We’ve been very strict but fair,” Samal said.
“No more ELCs are to be given out. The timber export ban is going to be effective forever from now on. We don’t allow any timber to flow out of the country.”
Thousands of tonnes of wood confiscated during the nationwide crackdown will be sold in public auctions, he added, with the income generated to be used to improve Cambodia’s education sector.
Besides ELCs, the environment minister argued ordinary citizens themselves have also contributed to deforestation due to the rich rewards on offer.
“With one hectare of rice, they probably won’t earn US$1,000 per year. But if they go into the forest and cut down a few trees, they might earn that much in a very short time. So that’s the economic incentive that makes things very difficult,” Samal explained, adding a severe lack of forest rangers also means many illegal activities continue unchecked.
"I'm not denying that there are problems. We're on it," he said.
In its battle against deforestation, the environment ministry is planning to turn more land into national parks and wildlife sanctuaries and combine the existing protected forests into one biological unit.
It is also gearing up for co-management of protected forests, which covers about 6 million hectares nationwide. More civil societies and local communities will be invited to safeguard their local forest through the Community Forestry (CF) programme.
There are more than 400 CF communities in Cambodia, formed voluntarily by local residents. Members can use forest resources in a sustainable manner while participating in decentralised management as well as protection of forest resources. But according to Samal, the ministry is also pushing for some of them to become tourist attractions.
“We’ve seen people who used to hunt become tour guides, taking tourists out for bush walking around national parks. That’s the result we want to see and spread to other parts of Cambodia,” he said.
“It is a strategy to move them away, step by step, from the forest in a sustainable manner.”
This is the final part of a series of special reports on Cambodia's forests.
Part 1 looked at claims that timber is still finding its way into Vietnam despite a ban earlier this year. Part 2 investigated how communities have seen forests disappear under a reforestation programme. Part 3 profiled the armed rangers tasked with protecting Cambodia's forests.
Follow Pichayada Promchertchoo on Twitter @PichayadaCNA