On 13 July the Frontline Club hosted a discussion on logging in Cambodia and showed a clip from an upcoming documentary film “Rubbernaut” which explores the issues of illegal logging and development in the country. The film interviewed the charismatic Chut Wutty, an activist whose recent death shocked Cambodia. After completing military studies in Russia in the early 1990s, he returned to his native Cambodia, which was still recovering from a long war, his military background saw him get him involved in mine clearing. Shocked by Cambodia’s elites rapacious attitude to the country’s forests and indifference to the people who dwell in them, he became involved in the work of NGOs and helping the Cambodians that rely on the forest for their livelihood, by campaigning against the logging companies and the corrupt officials, military and police that aid them. Wutty had often become involved in often violent confrontations with the loggers and police and one day in April during an altercation he was shot dead. There was a great deal of confusion about what happened and the Governments’ version of events changed four times in three days after his death while the story made front page news in Cambodia for two weeks and hit the headlines around the world.
The demand for Cambodian wood is mainly driven by neighbouring China and Vietnam, the high quality wood is used for ornaments and furniture, while the lower value for plywood and cheap building materials. The Cambodian constitution which Wutty often brandished and quoted to police and loggers, is supposed to protect the country’s forest, but is routinely ignored, as are the rights of the people who live in the forests. Lacking official titles and formal property rights they face the same struggle many people living in or around forests do, without land titles, money or connections to protect themselves, they are forced off the land which they make their living from.
International donors are main lever with which NGOs and activists can pressure the Cambodian government into acting to protect the forest, as western donors provide around 50 per cent of the Government’s budget. Lobbying Western governments could in turn force politicians in Cambodia to act against the loggers.
Illegal logging is an environmental crime with parallels and connections to wildlife smuggling and poaching. What the World Bank calls the illegal logging mafia target forests that are poorly protected by officials with out of date equipment, while the loggers have access to high tech equipment and are often armed with automatic weapons. It is estimated that around $15 billion is made through illegal logging each year; efforts are usually directed at low level criminals, cutting down and moving the trees. But the companies and individuals bribing and financing these operations go unpunished. The timber from illegal logging comes from Africa, Indonesia and South America, and traditionally went to the Western world. Legislative efforts, such as the US Lacey Act have reduced the amount of illegal timber exported to the US, but increasingly the timber is going to the growing markets of countries like China and Vietnam.