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Sydney Lenssen The logs of war

Global Witness has a mission to expose environmental and human rights abuse. For the past five years, founder/director Patrick Alley and his colleagues have tracked the destruction of Cambodia's forests. Their evidence has caused the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and aid agencies to urge changes on the country and its neighbours Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.

On current form, Cambodia's primary hardwood forests will be logged out by 2003. Forest cover has halved to 35% in 20 years, deforestation silts up the rivers and depletes fish stocks. Access to logging concessions is denied, and increased floods and droughts have hit agriculture. Experts doubt that the 10 million population - 80% peasant - will be able to sustain itself.

In 1997, between 2.5M.m3 and 4.5M.m3 of timber were felled, the higher figure coming from the World Bank, the lower from Global Witness. Official government figures show just over 400,000m3, and the Department of Forestry denies that illegal logging takes place. The previous department director was sacked after annoying a logging boss.

Cambodia's total annual budget for 1998 amounts to US$420M, of which forest revenue accounts for $13.1M. Global Witness estimates that at least $125M is paid in timber bribes each year, the proceeds going to elected politicians including Prime Minister Hun Sen and officials. The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces takes half of the country's budget, and the army collects a further 50% to 60% by getting soldiers to help or protect logging companies from Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, China and Thailand.

The Khmer Rouge relied on timber revenue. Its cross-border trade with Thailand was worth $10M to $20M a month in early 1995 until international pressure on Bangkok caused the government to seal the borders to logging. Global Witness has revealed that the Thai traders insisted that imported logs had certificates of origin. These were supplied officially from Phnom Penh on payment of $35/m3, which then went missing.

Timber, the country's most valuable resource, was being used illegally and knowingly to finance both sides in the civil war.

Cambodian laws to regulate the forestry industry exist and could be made to work. Log exports are banned. Exports of value added products must originate from legitimate concessions and must exit through two policed ports. Thailand, Laos and Vietnam are all pledged to prevent illegal imports from the country.

In his investigations, Alley was amazed to find that detailed documentation of deals on government files is available, given patience.

By the end of 1997, seven million hectares were allocated as concessions to timber companies - virtually all the country's forests except for national parks and other protected areas.

The logging companies operate as a virtual Mafia, invading neighbouring rival areas for trees to conserve their own stock, paying the military to intimidate officials and other companies. Threats, murder, kidnap and ransoms are part of the way of life. Four workers from a state-owned Chinese company were killed by rocket attack last year.

Is there any hope for the future?

A senior figure in the European Environment Agency this week gave little ground for optimism. International agreement on a forestry convention had reached the stage of principles at the Rio summit, but five years on few countries are ready to sign anything with teeth.

He believes that donor countries could try harder with conditions on aid, but an IDB spokesman said that most recipient countries were already bitter about the high percentage of loans spent on monitoring the spending. Cambodia ignores threats to withdraw aid because the money is small in comparison with the corruption.

Best hope - and it's not much - is that consumers exert pressure in choosing the source of what they buy. Two UK organisations favour this: the Forest Stewardship Council based in Powys with international headquarters in Mexico, and Forests Forever, an arm of the Timber Trade Federation. Neither have contacts or influence in Cambodia.

Most Cambodian timber reportedly ends up in Japan at $2,500/m3 for high grade species. Most entering Britain is garden furniture, usually carrying a bogus certificate of provenance - ten-a-penny in Thailand, Laos or Vietnam.

Civil engineering is the second largest market here. So if you must use hardwoods, beware if you care.

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