Cambodia: Clearcutting leaves indigenous to fend for themselves
ay903 at extra.lafn.org
Tue Sep 15 20:31:08 EST 1998
By ANDREW PERRIN
(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."
Copyright 1998 The Earth Times All rights reserved.
More information about the Ag-forst