Massive logging has been identified as Cambodia's main environmental problem. Since the 90s, the timber sector, replicating the globalised forest management pattern that prioritises short-term financial profit to ecological stability, aggressively exploits Cambodian forests. Virtually all forestland, except for protected areas, has been allocated as concessions to mostly foreign companies. Additionally, the mid-nineties were characterized by large-scale uncontrolled and illegal logging activities throughout the country. It is estimated that 90% of the logging activities in 1997 were illegal.
An Asian Development Bank-funded forest sector review conducted in 1999 and released in 2000 described the situation as a "total system failure.” The report expressed that “The scenario is clear: the industry wants to cover its investment costs rapidly and continue earning as long as the resource lasts. In permitting this level of forest exploitation, Cambodia displays a classic example of unwise forest resource utilization. The country may soon turn from being a net exporter of timber to a net importer.”
Faced with the possibility of a moratorium on logging, the timber industry opted for a "voluntary restructuring process", which included re-negotiation of contracts that clearly defined responsibilities and rights of the industry and the government, the payment of overdue deposits and minimal royalties and the submission of new management plans according to standards set out in a new model concession agreement.
However, the structures put in place to ensure credible monitoring and law enforcement were grossly inadequate. Since the Prime Minister's announcement in 1999 to crackdown on illegal logging, the government agency in charge basically adopted the view that Cambodia is now free of the illegal logging problem. Illegal logging is by now considered small-scale timber theft, that is still widespread and, from time to time, publicly suppressed by the authorities. Law enforcement activities are so far not targeting organized businesses and very rarely military personnel involved.
The introduction of the Forest Crime Monitoring Project has not fulfilled expectations, partly due to technical and logical set-up failures, but mostly because of the lack of institutional support and political will on the government side. The agencies in charge lack capacity and motivation to consistently follow the progress, or shortcomings, of the reform process. In-country capacity to guide and supervise the process was --and is-- extremely limited. In particular the World Bank's approach of focusing on "illegal" logging instead of actively reducing the underlying system failures has reduced the momentum for change since 1999.
An international panel of experts reviewing the sector assessment underlined the report's findings, but explicitly stressed the fact that the report concentrates heavily on the narrow view of forestry from an engineering and timber harvesting perspective, without adequately addressing overall strategic land-use planning issues such as community forestry, environmental and social values, which are fundamental to forest management planning.
More and more the values and benefits of a different approach and understanding of "forest management", for local communities as well as for the overall economic and social development of developing countries, are widely recognised.
The concept of industrial timber concessions to utilise tropical timber resources, developed in the seventies, especially if run by foreign companies, has proven to be unsatisfying and in some cases disastrous in numerous countries in the region and beyond.
In the case of Cambodia, it is promising that after years of preparations, false starts and stalling, a new Sub-Degree on Community Forestry is finally on its way. Experiences with the Forest Crime Monitoring Project have shown that communities play a crucial role in monitoring and safeguarding Cambodia’s forests. Facing destruction and loss of their livelihood, communities are starting to organise themselves with petitions, demonstrations and direct confrontations with loggers and the military, with sometimes surprisingly successful outcomes.
The time is right for the Cambodian government and the international community to actively encourage and support this process.