Magazine article New Internationalist

Opportunity Knocks: Cambodians Are Getting a Crash Course in the New, Freewheeling World Economic Order

Magazine article New Internationalist

Opportunity Knocks: Cambodians Are Getting a Crash Course in the New, Freewheeling World Economic Order

Article excerpt

I AM not an environmentalist, nor an economist. I'm just an opportunist,' says a timber trader on the border with Vietnam. He was neatly summarizing what's happening to Cambodia's stricken economy and environment.

The country was once covered with dense forests, but in less than 30 years almost half of them have gone -- in 1992 alone over one million hectares of forest were cut. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimates logging levels to be two - and - a - half to five times above the country's sustainable yield. At this rate Cambodia will have lost what remains of its natural forest cover in less than ten years. Over 40 per cent of what was once farmland is now a wasteland covered with mines, and land is urgently needed for 360,000 refugees returning from the border camps.

The pressure for quick profits from timber is intense. All four Cambodian factions have raised funds via logging. The Khmer Rouge receive one million dollars per month from timber exported across the Thai border from the forests they control in the west of the country around Palin. The State of Cambodia Government (SOC) earns 80 per cent of its foreign exchange from logging activities. The SOC has signed concessions with companies from Thailand, France and Singapore and has contracts pending with Malaysian and Indonesian parties.

On 31 December 1992 a logging moratorium came into effect. Although this ban may reduce the export of raw logs, early indications suggest an increase in internal sawmill production. The Japanese have sawmills in Kompong Speu and just outside Phnom Penh. Much of the sawn timber on the road to Khompong Som is stamped for delivery to Japan. Internal demand for timber has also grown with the UN presence and the consequent construction boom.

In the south - western province of Koh Kong villagers are now using portable sawmills and netting up to $800 per month selling to Thai and Singaporean buyers who have ships anchored off - shore. Truck driver Seng Phon -- formerly a government soldier -- supports his family by transporting logs from Koh Kong to Kandal province. 'I stopped being a soldier because I didn't have enough food to eat,' says Phon, who makes two runs per week netting $640 for each truckload of 12 logs.

The wider environmental costs of deforestation are rising sharply. Waterways are beginning to clog up. Fish are reportedly dying from the effects of siltation in the Tonle Sap river. Fisherfolk already avoid the most heavily muddied areas of the lake: the cumulative effect has been to reduce the spawning ground available for migratory fish. In August 1991 a flash flood in the Mekong waterway caused an estimated $150 million of damage to farms and fisheries. 'The flood did more damage in 24 hours than the value of all the timber that had been extracted,' says UNDP's John Dennis.

Cambodia can never return to the way it was,' says Gordon Patterson of the Mennonite Committee, one of the aid agencies most involved in forestry projects. 'Each period of deforestation over the last several decades -- Pol Pot, the reconstruction after Pol Pot or the latest period of cutting -- contributes to the degradation of Cambodia's natural resources and that is irreversible.'

Gem mining around Palin in the Khmer Rouge - controlled zone has created what soldiers from the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) describe as a 'lunar landscape'. Trucks are operating 24 hours a day removing earth across the Thai border where it is panned and the valuable gemstones removed. The Khmer Rouge charge a 45 - per - cent tax on all gems removed and sold in the areas they control. Some mechanical panning has been reported in Cambodia with the residue earth being washed away into the Tonle Sap River, where it adds to the siltation process.

Oil prospecting is also damaging the environment. Sonic booms threaten fish production. Drilling threatens to dump contaminated mud in internal waterways. …

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