Cablegate: Law and Reality Clash in Cambodia's Forests

Published: Tue 18 Sep 2007 08:21 AM
DE RUEHPF #1193/01 2610821
R 180821Z SEP 07
E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/15/2017
Classified By: Economic Officer Jennifer Spande for reasons 1.4(b).
1. (SBU) Summary: While Cambodian law provides for
environmental and social safeguards in the sale of land and
in the establishment of Economic Land Concessions (ELCs),
poor enforcement of these laws means that land sales and
large concessions threaten both the environment and community
livelihoods. NGOs argue that in contrast to the stated
purpose of promoting economic development, ELCs are nothing
more than legal loopholes to avoid the official moratorium on
logging. Moreover, despite legal provisions designed to
include community stakeholders in discussions and decisions
on ELCs, information sharing is so poor that many communities
are not even informed of the boundaries of new concessions
established near them. Meanwhile, villages are also being
pressured and/or coerced into selling their land. One
doleful villager, comparing the societal destruction of
forest and river disputes to life during the Khmer Rouge
regime remarked, "Before we had fighting using weapons. Now
we have fighting using the environment." End Summary.
2. (U) Regional Environment Officer (REO) and Econoff
traveled to Stung Treng and Ratanakiri provinces in
northeastern Cambodia to investigate forestry and water
resource issues and their effects on local communities. This
cable examines forestry and land issues in this area; reftel
reports on the environmental and social challenges of
hydropower dams located upstream in Vietnam and Laos and
proposed for construction in Cambodia.
Laws Set Strict Environmental, Social Conditions for Land
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3. (U) According to provincial officials in Ratanakiri and
Stung Treng, Cambodia's 2001 Land Law, 2002 Forestry Law, and
government procedures contain many provisions designed to
protect forests, community land, and the villagers that
depend on these areas for their livelihoods. Land belonging
to indigenous communities cannot be sold. A logging
moratorium has been in place since 2002, although companies
that intend to plant rubber, cashews, cassava, or other crops
in designated economic land concessions (ELCs) are allowed to
cut trees so that crops can be planted. Working groups of
government officials ranging from village to provincial level
collaborate on decisions about where to award ELCs and how
large they should be, and final decisions are made by the
Minister of Agriculture, Forests, and Fisheries in
consultation with the Council for the Development of
Cambodia. Land used by villages cannot be awarded as an
economic land concession, and additional land is to be
reserved for the use of their future generations.
4. (U) Provincial government officials in the northeast told
us that ELCs are subject to many regulations. Companies
operating ELCs must file master plans with the provincial
government showing what crops they intend to plant after they
cut down the trees; failure to follow the master plan can
result in the loss of the concession. In a nod to
environmental concerns, only land classified as "thin forest"
can be designated as an economic land concession. The
officials stated that the Ministry of Environment is charged
with conducting an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)
before any concession is granted, and that these EIAs are
public documents which anyone can obtain on request. In
addition, the officials noted, local communities are to be
consulted in any ELC projects that might impact them.
But Practice is a Far Cry from the Law, Communities Say
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5. (C) In contrast to the environmental and social
safeguards theoretically in place, NGOs and community members
we visited in the two provinces painted a very different
picture of the way concessions are awarded and managed in
practice. NGO representatives said that "thick forests" and
"thin forests" are poorly defined terms which could refer to
canopy density or the type of trees present. Government
officials admitted that areas are classified by an
interministerial committee of non-expert officials based
largely on satellite images with very limited on-the-ground
verification. Several community members we spoke with
accused officials of manipulating the definitions to allow
desirable land to be classified as thin forests so that it
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could be given as a concession. (Comment: Even the
assertion that thin forests are somehow less ecologically
important than thick ones is dubious. Indeed, it might make
more sense to preserve a diverse set of forests. End
Comment.) And, the widespread belief among both NGO
representatives and villagers is that few of the
concessionaires are interested in actually following their
master plans and planting crops. Instead, they say, these
companies are interested only in logging the trees, have no
intention of planting rubber or cashews, and do not care if
they lose the concession after the forests are cleared.
Thus, while the Chief of the Stung Treng Forest
Administration, speaking from his hardwood-paneled office,
told us that two companies in other provinces had recently
lost their concessions because they failed to follow their
master plans, this punishment was likely of little
consequence--the companies had already cleared the land and
made their profit selling the trees. In fact, there appears
to be merit in NGO claims that the ELC system has evolved to
allow logging companies to sidestep the official moratorium
on timber-cutting.
6. (C) The NGO Culture and Environment Preservation
Association (CEPA--strictly protect) gave us a map they said
was given to them by a staffer's relative who works at the
Forestry Administration's national headquarters. This map
shows approximately 75% of Stung Treng province as being part
of planned or existing ELCs or forest concessions and another
15% as being part of Virachey National Park, leaving only 15%
for villages and village agriculture. The Governor of Stung
Treng stated that the eleven concessions in his province
totaled only 180,768 hectares, or 10% of the provincial land
area, and that no additional concessions were planned. If
the map from CEPA is genuine, then either the Governor was
unaware of what was happening in his province or he was lying
to us. In any case, no official list or map of concessions
is published, so no one outside of an apparently close circle
of official insiders know what the true figures are.
(Comment: Post also contacted Forest Administration
headquarters to request a map of concessions in Stung Treng,
not/not alluding to the map we obtained from CEPA, and we
were told that no such maps exist. End Comment.)
7. (SBU) Villagers at two of the three communities we
visited, as well as villagers from several other communities
who attended an annual gathering of river communities in
Ratanakiri province, complained that the borders of ELCs
adjacent to their lands are unclear, with no official map
showing where they begin and end. The village chief in one
remote ethnic Phnong community told us that he believed that
a recently awarded concession included his long-established
village. But, without information about the concession's
boundaries, he could not confirm this or appeal for a change.
In fact, far from being involved in the ELC decisionmaking
process, the village chief only learned that a concession had
been awarded when a group began cutting a road through the
forest several months ago. Villagers also say that rather
than setting aside currently used community land plus extra
land for the use of future generations, concessions often
include substantial portions of land currently used by the
community, leading to greater food and income insecurity.
8. (SBU) Information sharing between affected communities
and government decisionmakers is often problematic.
Government officials were unclear about how communities were
supposed to participate in the process. While the Director
of the Stung Treng Environmental Department told Emboffs that
EIAs are public documents, he also noted that no one has ever
requested to see one. (Note: NGO leaders tell us that they
have requested EIAs. Sometimes their requests are turned
down, other times they are given preliminary studies or
excerpts of EIAs from other concessions. None of the NGOs we
spoke with had ever received a complete EIA. End Note.) The
Chief of the Stung Treng Forest Administration downplayed the
importance of public access to the EIAs, saying that the
villagers were illiterate and would not be able to read them
Land and Forest Disputes Divide Communities
9. (SBU) Forest conflicts in northeastern Cambodia often
cause division within and among local communities. A group
of Ratanakiri NGO leaders reported that while some
communities put tremendous effort into fighting to retain
possession of their land and prevent logging on it, others
log their land illegally and sell the logs to the wealthy, or
PHNOM PENH 00001193 003 OF 004
willingly sell their land to outsiders. (Note: NGO leaders
also highlighted that when there are crackdowns on illegal
logging, villagers who cut down the logs are arrested, while
their wealthy patrons go free. End Note.) Communities
reluctant or unwilling to sell their land are often pressured
into sales, often by their village leaders or neighbors who
have already agreed to sell. NGOs reported cases where
Cambodian officials have forced villagers to sign land sale
contracts, villagers who tried to enforce their land rights
via the courts were arrested, or contracts were altered after
being signed.
10. (SBU) Gordon Patterson of the Highlanders Association
reported that villages trying to retain their land face so
much pressure to sell that they must invest enormous energy
in maintaining solidarity; discussing how to approach the
issue; and in traveling to the provincial capital to talk
with government officials, NGOs, and others. For these
impoverished communities, the cost of this effort is
substantial: less time to spend on farming and less money
for necessities. Patterson notes that communities who exert
energy in fighting land issues face a reduction in food
security the following year, and sometimes simply give in.
Moreover, those who sell their land generally spend their
money quickly and end up as landless urban dwellers
searching, usually unsuccessfully, for factory or day labor
jobs. NGO representatives also noted that while government
officials often promoted land sales as bringing economic
development to the region, resort and plantation owners often
discriminate against locals, particularly non-Khmers, in
hiring, and prefer to bring in workers from other provinces.
Anger, Fear, and Violence
11. (SBU) The dozens of villagers we spoke with during our
six-day trip to the northeast were generally polite, shy, and
soft-spoken, often speaking with voices so low that the
interpreters had to ask them to repeat what they said. When
the conversation turned to ELCs and land sales, however, they
became voluble. Their frustration--and in many cases,
anger--was obvious. One ethnic Lao villager in Ratanakiri
province, his voice quivering, poignantly compared the
societal destruction of forest and river conflict today to
Cambodia's Khmer Rouge history: "Before we had fighting
using weapons. Now we have fighting using the environment."
12. (SBU) At our meeting with the Governor of Ratanakiri
province, we shared our concern about the high level of
frustration, resentment, and anger we were hearing. The REO
drew parallels between Ratanakiri's land and forest issues
and those of Vietnam's central highlands just across the
border. In that region, violence erupted in 2001 following
many years of indigenous communities' losing forest land to
coffee plantations, and the repercussions are still being
felt today. The Governor dismissed these concerns with a
wave of his hand.
13. (SBU) Community members and NGO activists reported being
afraid to protest land policies too vigorously. Tep
Bunnarith, Executive Director of the Culture and Environment
Preservation Association (CEPA), said he learned that the
central government has asked the provincial Forest
Administration to keep tabs on CEPA. The head of the
Ratanakiri office of Adhoc, a local human rights NGO,
reported that Adhoc staff and other NGO community members had
received death threats. Sadly, just a few weeks after these
conversations, Seng Sarorn, a CEPA staff member, was shot and
killed by an unknown assailant while at his home in Stung
Treng. Sarorn had been involved in protests against the Sal
Sophea Peanich company, one of four companies accused in
March 2007 of taking advantage of unclearly demarcated
concessions to grab land used by indigenous communities.
Sarorn had collected thumb prints from community members
seeking to take legal action against Sal Sophea Peanich just
two weeks before his death. The police have arrested two
suspects, though NGO leaders doubt that these two individuals
were truly involved.
Forests Critical to Rural Communities
14. (U) Rural communities in Cambodia's northeast rely
heavily on forests for economic survival. Villagers from
O'Run and O'Svay villages in Stung Treng told us that only 30
percent of their community members make enough from farming
to rely on agriculture as their sole source of income; the
PHNOM PENH 00001193 004 OF 004
other 70 percent have to supplement their incomes by
harvesting non-timber forest products. These products
include resin used for waterproofing boats and making
torches; vines, stems, and leaves used for rattan or wicker
building materials; and mushrooms, honey, and wildlife such
as turtles and rabbits used for food. In addition to using
these products themselves, villagers sell them in local
markets, earning USD 300 to 400 per year, a considerable sum
in rural Cambodia. The Cambodian Development Research
Institute estimates that non-timber forest products account
for 42% of total household income for low-income Cambodian
15. (U) Indigenous communities also attach spiritual
significance to their forests. Ethnic Phnong believe the
souls of their ancestors live in "spirit forests." Villagers
worship at designated locations in these sprit forests and
consider them sacred. Ethnic Phnong in one community told us
they feared that if nearby illegal logging came too close to
their spirit forest, the desecration would cause disease in
their community.
16. (SBU) Continuing forest conflicts in Cambodia threaten
political and social stability and impede donor and Cambodian
government efforts to reduce poverty. The combination of
insecure access to land and hydropower-related changes in
fish catch, flood patterns, and water quality (described
reftel) have a tremendous effect on poor villagers, who often
have no input into land- or water-use decisions and have
little recourse after the decisions are made. As with so
many other legal issues in Cambodia, the environmental and
social protections enshrined in the law are fairly strong,
but lack of enforcement leaves poor rural communities
vulnerable to land grabs and logging by the wealthy and
influential. Villagers feel they have absolutely no
influence in land-use decisions and have no recourse after
decisions are made. Most of the numerous villagers we met
expressed frustration, fear, and great anger whenever the
conversation turned to land, forests, and ELCs. Rather than
planting cash crops, it appeared to us that the
concessionaires were planting the seeds of civil and social
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