Cambodia: War, Politics, and the Environment
June 11, 2003
Katherine Knight - Conservation Law Foundation
The decades-long civil war in Cambodia is extracting a steep price in terms of the country's natural resources. Can Cambodia's valuable forests survive?
Casual observers of news and TV reports about distant Cambodia were probably bewildered by recent photos of Pol Pot as a captive of his own Khmer Rouge. If the Khmer Rouge still control parts of the country, what happened to the 'peace' which cost the international community some $2 billion?
The answer lies in a tangled saga woven of greed, official corruption, lingering cold-war political bias, and yes, massive exploitation of a country's natural resources by its own government.
Eighteen years after being driven from power and four years after a UN Peace Accord, the authors of the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s are still able to splinter and destabilize the country because the international community has not shown the united political will to force their organizational demise. In 1991, motivated to remove the Vietnamese-founded government from Cambodia rather than to bring the perpetrators of genocide to justice, the US and China insisted on the latter's inclusion as full and equal parties to the Peace Accord. But in 1993, the Khmer Rouge chose to boycott national elections and return with impunity to terrorism. At that point China finally ceased arming Pol Pot, but neighboring Thailand continued its habitual military and commercial collaborations.
Tremendous wealth was to flow through that economic lifeline. The Khmer Rouge had gained control of 20% of Cambodia as a benefit of initial cooperation with the peace process, and they controlled much of its densest hardwood forest as well as its rare gem deposits. After the Vietnamese army withdrew in 1989, Thai gem traders and logging companies greatly increased trade in the precious commodities across Cambodia's western border-enriching the Khmer Rouge by an estimated US $300 million annually.
A report to the UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 described Cambodian forests as "the lungs of Southeast Asia." But aerial surveys showed a 30% drop in forest cover in the course of only 20 years. Moreover, during 1992, an estimated 620,000 acres were deforested since the Khmer Rouge granted six Thai companies concessions to cut wide swaths of Cambodian forest. Alarmed, the UN interim administration declared a logging ban as of January 1, 1993. However, on December 31, 1992, a Bangkok Post reporter counted 132 loaded logging trucks backed up to cross into Thailand.
The New Year logging ban left Thai officials facing the challenge of abolishing what had become a subeconomy, and they were initially candid about the difficulty they faced. Following the ban, Thailand declared an "official policy" of no trade with Khmer Rouge, while Thai military border guards continued to permit Thai logging trucks through border checkpoints. When criticized, officials in Bangkok began to rely on the excuse that the approximately 700-km length of the Thai-Cambodian border made it impossible to police. They suggested that sealing the Thai border to log imports might be compared to sealing the US-Mexican border to illegal immigrants-arguments belied by the fact that every road wide enough for logging trucks is under strict military control at the border.
Meanwhile, the Asian press began to document the sheer scale of the Thai-Khmer Rouge timber trade and its value at tens of millions (US dollars) per month. Analysts observed that Pol Pot's ability to continue his 'low-intensity' guerrilla operations now relied on the resulting cash pouring into his Thai bank accounts. The Khmer Rouge possessed huge weapons stockpiles but needed to pay for extensive imports of food and supplies.
Although Thailand is the closest US military ally in Southeast Asia, pressure on Bangkok from Washington to cut economic ties with the Khmer Rouge remained merely verbal. Even as late as 1994, the US threatened sanctions on Thailand for violations of US intellectual property rights, but its continuing trade with the Khmer Rouge went unmentioned in the annual State/Defense Department report to Congress.
Replacement of the UN administrations by an elected Cambodian government in October 1993 did not bring protection for Cambodian forests. A new government policy temporarily lifted the full logging ban to allow for export of previously felled timber. This opened a Pandora's box, whose vicious effects are still continuing in 1997, because the government proved incapable of preventing freshcutting by companies allegedly exporting old logs. Corruption was an even greater factor in this despoliation of the forests. Elected Cambodian officials began illegal signing of forestry concessions that allowed foreign companies to log in regions of Khmer Rouge control. In effect, the Cambodian government was fundraising for its enemies while it sacrificed its prime natural resource. By the end of 1995, logging concessions covered all of Cambodia's remaining forests.
But 1995 also brought unexpected impetus for change. In London, a new team of environmental field investigators, calling themselves Global Witness, opened for business. Dedicated to exposing environmental abuse that affects human rights, Patrick Alley and Simon Taylor chose Cambodia as their first assignment. With thoroughness, skill, and considerable courage they traveled the Thai-Cambodia border and, posing as timber buyers, they observed the placement and behavior of the Thai military, researched customs and tax documents, interviewed and recorded logging company owners, workers, and drivers, photographing lumber yards, log trucks, and boats. They would make 10 such border investigations between 1995 and 1997.
By May 1995, the Global Witness team had publicly identified the Thai companies buying Khmer Rouge timber. They also briefed Foreign Aid appropriators in the US Congress who responded with a new ban on US aid to any foreign military trading with the Khmer Rouge. Global Witness's accusations and the new US sanctions caused the Thai government to close most of its land border crossings to log imports by the dry season of 1996, and pushed the US embassy in Bangkok to seriously investigate the border trade. Global Witness estimated that the resulting economic squeeze on the Khmer Rouge substantially contributed to the first large-scale defection to the Cambodian government in September 1996.
Alley's and Taylor's additional discovery of massive, illegal logging contracts, signed by both Cambodian prime ministers and indicating great financial loss as well as environment destruction, has led the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to freeze current loans to Cambodia and has alerted the international donor community to the grave dangers which have followed the deforestation of recent years.
Cambodia's rich ecosystem is unique. The natural annual flooding of its Great Lake not only fertilizes vast acres of rice production but turns the country's center into a huge shallow sea which produces 70% of its protein. In addition to producing unnatural flood and drought, deforestation is already causing heavy siltation of the lake. Continued cutting at recent rates could cause its disappearance by 2025. In a worst-case scenario, this protracted war and the corruption it has spawned can irrevocably destroy the forests, the prime natural resource on which Cambodia's complex natural and human economies depend. It is in the interests of the international community to prevent that.
Katherine Knight is the Public Advocacy Coordinator for Oxfam America, an international humanitarian agency which has supported relief and development projects in Cambodia since 1979.
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