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Customs, Concessionaires and Conflict: Tracking Cambodia’s Forest Commodity Chains and Export Links with China

By Keith Barney - York Centre for Asian Research (YCAR)
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Cambodia has obviously experienced some difficulty in implementing an effective framework of sustainable forest management. Indeed, the Cambodian forest sector can be considered a paradigmatic example of the close links between vast resource wealth on the one hand, and structural conflict and rural violence on the other (Peluso and Watts 2001). From the early to the mid-1990s, Cambodia’s illegal logging sector was a
primary source of military financing for both the remaining Khmer Rouge forces in western Cambodia and political actors jockeying for power in Phnom Penh (Le Billon 2000). Rather than ushering in a new era of improved forest governance, the final collapse of the Khmer Rouge instead resulted in a widening and intensification of ‘anarchic logging’ by an elite network of concession holders with close ties to the upper
levels of the Cambodian state. Le Billon (2002) characterizes the Cambodian forestry experience as the ‘instrumentalization of disorder,’ in which the profits available from the forests came to represent a decisive means for actors to seize and hold political power within a context of conflict and state transition. In this situation, the obfuscation of what was happening to the Cambodian forests (or ‘muddying the waters’) then becomes linked less to weaknesses in bureaucratic regulatory capacity, as much as a strategy on the part of actors to acquire economic resources and power through a parallel shadow state system (Le Billon 2002). The
results of this process are at once clear and unclear. While all agree that natural forest cover has been seriously impacted, the Cambodian Department of Forests and Wildlife (DFW) still places forest cover at approximately 60 percent, while according to some NGOs it has fallen to as low as 20 percent (e.g. Ethical Corporation Magazine 2004).