Wooden Soldiers

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NISID HAJARIThe khaki-clad commandos made for quite a sight, dropping to earth in Soviet-made Mi-17 helicopters and leaping out, guns at the ready. Obviously they expected to meet more than the crowd of curious villagers gathered along the banks of the Mekong River. But the owners of what the military called an illegal logging camp, in Cambodia's northeastern Stung Treng province, had fled. Only a clutch of journalists watched as the troops razed a sawmill and some small huts scattered around the clearing.

That, however, could well have been their intended audience. When a group of donor nations agreed to resume aid to the Cambodian government in February, pledging $470 million for this year, they linked the support to reforms in several areas, including saving the country's forests. Weeks earlier Prime Minister Hun Sen had announced a crackdown on illegal loggers. Since the meeting, he has made all the right noises about streamlining the country's bloated civil service and demobilizing soldiers. Last week he even indicated that foreign judges and lawyers could play a limited role in the trial of former Khmer Rouge general Ta Mok--still the most public stumbling block on Phnom Penh's road to international legitimacy. The troops in Stung Treng are fighting a battle in this larger campaign, one where show is at least as important as force. Says army chief Gen. Ke Kim Yan wryly: It's easier than fighting the Khmer Rouge.

For Cambodia's forests, though, the threat could be as great. Illegal logging in Cambodia is like opium trading in the Golden Triangle, says Environment Minister Mok Mareth. The logs are gold. High-quality teak and other hardwoods can fetch as much as $1,000 a cubic meter in the United States and Europe. But since the government levied a tax of only $14 per cubic meter until a recent price hike, and since an estimated 90% of all logging in Cambodia takes place illegally, the country's bone-dry treasury missed out on an estimated $60 million in revenue in 1997, according to a recent World Bank report. Even more worrisome, timber companies--legal and illegal--are felling trees at four times the sustainable rate and have ravaged Cambodia's national parks. The report warns that if the anarchic situation remains unchecked, the country could have no forests worth logging by 2003.

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For years the Khmer Rouge could be blamed for much of the illicit trade, which they used to bankroll their guerrilla operations. But more recently, as the movement disintegrated, the Cambodian military has assumed control of the multimillion-dollar business. According to British environment watchdog Global Witness, the signature of Hun Sen himself has appeared in the past year on documents authorizing illegal timber exports. (The government banned all exports at the end of 1996.) Cabinet spokesman Khieu Tavika says the Prime Minister only approved the export of old, already felled logs, and that some companies may have gone beyond what was authorized. But the close ties between Hun Sen and the directors of several large logging companies continues to raise doubts about his latest pledges. Only days after the Tokyo donors conference, the Environment Ministry received word of 400 cu m of logs being shipped to Vietnam; Global Witness reported other shipments going to Laos from Stung Treng that same month.

Major-General Tav Kong, the recently installed commander of the military region that covers the densely forested province, says things have changed. The military has been involved in illegal activities before, he admits. But, he insists, those were individual military men working closely with businessmen and using armed forces to protect their businesses. Finance Minister Keat Chhon promised donors in Tokyo that several generals suspected of timber smuggling had been reassigned, including Kong's predecessor. In any case, Cambodia lacks any other organized group strong enough to tackle the powerful--and often armed--loggers. For now Cambodians can only accept the army's seeming enthusiasm for the task at face value. We are determined to make this plan succeed, boasts Gen. Chea Tara, leader of the Stung Treng raid. In just two months, illegal logging activity has almost disappeared.

That is almost certainly an overstatement. Forestry director Ty Sokhun claims that 752 illegal sawmills had been destroyed and 9,500 cu m of logs seized by the end of March. (According to Global Witness director Patrick Alley, though, The victims of the raids are small local sawmills which are certainly not the core of the problem.) The government has at least raised the tariff on timber to a more realistic $53 per cubic meter (still less than the $75 recommended by the World Bank). More stringent forestry laws await cabinet approval before being sent to the National Assembly. And authorities have revoked 12 contracts awarded to logging companies because they were inactive or operating illegally.

Authorities are also drawing up legislation to establish an independent body that will monitor logging, possibly in conjunction with non-governmental groups. We cannot use force forever, says Mareth. Unless those monitors are backed by force, however, they may have little to show for their efforts.

Reported by Caroline Gluck/Stung Treng

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