Cambodia: Clearcutting leaves indigenous to fend for themselves

Recycled News ay903 at
Tue Sep 15 20:31:08 EST 1998

 (c) Earth Times News Service

 They are known to the political leaders of Cambodia as ethnic
 minority groups. But to the lowland Khmers who live in the far-flung
 province of Ratanakiri in northeast Cambodia, the 56,000 villagers who
 are scattered among the dense forests in the hills that surround the
 province's capital, Ban Lung, are simply hill tribe people.
 For hundreds of years these people, who have no formal education and
 speak no Khmer, have lived a sustainable hunter-gatherer existence in
 the hills, rarely venturing out of the forests that have nurtured
 them--not even when their forests were carpet-bombed by the Americans
 in 1973 nor when Pol Pot held them up as symbols of the agrarian,
 communal-based system he wanted to impose on the rest of the country
 during the Khmer Rouge's brutal rule between 1975-79.
 But now the traditional lifestyle of the hill tribes, of which there
 are eight different indigenous groups in the province, is under a
 different kind of threat. The nation, riven by war for decades, is
 shifting its focus from warfare to economic development and the
 exploitation of natural resources. And Ratanakiri, with its rich red
 volcanic soil, pristine rivers, abundant hardwood forests and
 relatively low population has become the new frontier for proposed
 industrial plantations, hydroelectric projects and logging
 It is the logging that is threatening the hill tribes the most. With
 hardwood timber generating prices of $50 to $200 per cubic meter
 locally and $500 to $800 per cubic meter on the international market,
 logging in the region has exploded. (A cubic meter equals 1.307 cubic
 Although the government has handed out massive logging concessions to
 local and international companies, most of the logging is illegal,
 carried out by companies from neighboring Vietnam.
 Since last November, members of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces
 (RCAF) have been cutting down large areas of forests in the region and
 transporting the timber across the border to be sold illegally on the
 international market. Evidence is mounting that the RCAF troops are
 operating under the guidance of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and
 that the money they are raising helps fill the coffers of the ruling
 Cambodian Communist Party (CCP).
 Global Witness, the British-based environmental watchdog, has
 estimated that timber stockpiles stored in southern Vietnam total
 260,000 cubic meters, onservatively worth about $130 million. This
 represents about one third of the Cambodian national budget.
 "This trade is illegal, the logging is highly destructive and
 wasteful--none of the money will go to the Cambodian Treasury--and,
 most dangerously, it will fund the military and political parties,
 predominantly the CPP, in the lead-up to the election," Global Witness
 founder Patrick Alley said.
 With political and pecuniary interests driving the logging issue, the
 hill tribes' only chance of preserving the forests that provide their
 livelihood is to legitimize their claim to the land. With no title
 deeds inexistence and native title laws nonexistent, the tribes are
 working with the Oxfam-supported Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP) to
 have the government recognize the economic and conservation value of
 preserving the forests and the people who live in them.
 "Our argument is that if the forests are cut down and modern
 agriculture implemented, all of the land would be used exhaustively at
 a great cost to the environment," said Gordon Paterson, NTFP project
 coordinator in Ban Lung. "The traditional system is much more
 sustainable. These people maintain the land as a mosaic of fertility.
 They use small areas of land for swidden [slash-and-burn] agriculture,
 leaving the vast majority of the old growth forests untouched, for
 this is the area where they collect bamboo, hunt small animals and
 But although the Department of Forestry and Agriculture has accepted
 the hill tribes' argument in principle, the logging continues
 unabated. Said the 76-year-old chief of one village a short distance
 west of Ban Lung: "I worry every day that men in trucks will come in
 and kill our great forest."
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