New WRM report on industrial tree plantations in Cambodia

26 Mar

A new WRM report records the impact of two companies’ tree plantations on local communities.

By Chris Lang. Published in WRM Bulletin 104, March 2006.

This month, WRM publishes a new report titled The death of the forest: A report on Wuzhishan’s and Green Rich’s tree plantation activities in Cambodia. The report records the impact of two companies’ tree plantations on local communities and their livelihoods. For security reasons, the researchers of the report wish to remain anonymous.

2005 was another bad year for democracy in Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen used defamation law suits to arrest or intimidate members of the political opposition, media, trade unions and NGOs.

Then, in January 2006, Hun Sen released four human rights activists on bail. He announced plans to change the law on defamation. In February, opposition leader Sam Rainsy returned to Cambodia, after a year of exile in France. And, in March, Hun Sen promised to crack down on corruption and speed up changes in the judicial system.

This is, sadly, a familiar ritual. About half of Cambodia’s annual budget comes in the form of foreign aid. Just before the Consultative Group Meeting, where aid agencies decide how much money to give to Cambodia, Hun Sen promises to ease off on repression, corruption, forest destruction and evil deeds in general. The aid agencies play their role in the ritual and pretend to have forgotten that Hun Sen made precisely the same promises just before the previous Consultative Group Meeting.

In December 2004, at the last Consultative Group Meeting, Hun Sen’s government committed to meet a series of targets (or Joint Monitoring Indicators, in Consultative Group jargon). The World Bank’s Country Director, Ian Porter, says that the Joint Monitoring Indicators “are a step in the right direction towards strengthening partnerships for reform and working toward common goals of strengthened systems of accountability in Cambodia.”

Let’s look at an example of what accountability looks like in Cambodia. In December 2004, the government promised to “Increase transparency of state management of natural resources through immediate public disclosure of existing contracts and compliance status (royalties and other key provisions) of contracts governing economic land concessions, mining concessions, fishing lots and continued disclosure of status of review of forest concessions.”

The government failed to release the contracts. Instead, the Ministry of Agriculture released incomplete records of just some of the land concessions.

Yet in the 2006 Joint Monitoring Indicators, the target is weakened. No mention is made of releasing contracts. The government is asked to “disseminate all relevant sector information on the activities of government agencies”. Who decides what is “relevant” is left unexplained. The information is to be posted “periodically” on the Technical Working Group on Forestry and Environment website. The word “periodically” is left undefined.

At the 2006 Consultative Group Meeting, the aid agencies promised to cough up US$601 million, even more than the US$504 million they agreed to give in 2004.

Hun Sen has held on to power in Cambodia for more than 20 years. Even after losing the UN sponsored elections in 1993, he clung onto power through a coalition with his political opponent Norodom Ranariddh. In 1997, he ousted Ranariddh in a bloody coup d’état. Between the coup and elections the following year, Hun Sen handed over more than one million hectares in logging concessions and land concessions. Between July 2003 and July 2004, during another political deadlock which prevented the formation of a government, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party handed out yet more land. Several of these concessions are for large scale industrial tree plantations.

Pheapimex, a notorious Cambodian logging company, has benefited from many of Hun Sen’s handouts. Pheapimex controls a total of seven per cent of the land area of Cambodia. The company is owned by Chheung Sopheap, a close friend of Hun Sen. Her husband, Lau Meng Khin is a director of Wuzhishan, which in 2004 started clearing forests in a 315,000 hectare plantation concession, originally awarded to Pheapimex.

Writing in Mother Jones magazine this month, Scott Carrier describes the political system in Cambodia as “shaped like a pyramid, where the people on the top can commit unspeakable crimes and the people on the bottom have no rights at all. Money, in the form of bribes and extortions, flows upward through the pyramid, and violence comes back down. This is the cultural mechanism of impunity.”

Carrier is writing about slavery, but his description of political corruption in Cambodia explains how prime minister Hun Sen has got away with handing over vast areas of Cambodia’s land to his business associates and friends. What it doesn’t explain is why year after year, the aid agencies agree to throw money at one of the most corrupt governments on the planet.

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