Once home to pristine forests that covered more than 70 percent of its territory, Cambodia may be on the verge of an ecological disaster.
Fueled by civil war, political strife, and greed, unchecked logging is contributing to the rapid disappearance of remaining woodlands.
Between 1973 and 1993, 3.6 million acres of the country's forest were lost and much of the remaining area was negatively affected, says a report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
And there are few signs that the rate of deforestation has diminished. In fact, loggers are using a loophole to circumvent a recently adopted ban on timber exports from Cambodia.
"The process is really out of control," says Masakazu Kashio, an official for the FAO in Bangkok.
The biggest threat is to Cambodia's Tonle Sap (Great Lake), which has been described as one of the richest freshwater fishing grounds in the world. As a result of deforestation, the lake is silting up. Cambodian Environment Minister Mok Mareth warned that at the present rate, the lake could disappear within 25 years.
Concerns about the government's lax logging policy led the International Monetary Fund (IMF) last year to halt a $20-million loan to Cambodia. And in response to international pressure, Cambodian officials also instituted a complete ban on the export of logs at the end of last year.
But Thai loggers are taking advantage of a legal loophole in the ban by setting up sawmills in Cambodia and shipping the timber across the border as "processed" wood.
Directly across the border from this Thai village a thriving weekend furniture market has sprung up. Until a few years ago this region was a stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, the Maoist revolutionaries who killed more than 1 million Cambodians during their reign of terror from 1975 to 1979. Now, a constant stream of rough-cut furniture flows past bored soldiers in what one Thai shopper described as "a mountain of wood" waiting for sale on the Cambodian side.
Some 40 miles east of Chong Chom, in the Thai town of Khu Khan, a sawmill said to be on land owned by the fearsome one-legged Khmer Rouge Gen. Ta Mok sits silent. Chang Gao, who claims to run the mill, says that the place used to employ 40 workers but has been shut for eight months. Everyone has gone to work in Cambodia, he adds, including his son, one of some 500 Thais now said to be working at sawmills that have sprung up across the border.
"The logging industry still exists," says Supalak Ganjanakhundee, a local journalist who covers the timber trade. "They've just changed their location and form of operation."
For a long time, the Khmer Rouge has been blamed by the Cambodian government for much of the logging mayhem. According to Global Witness, a London-based environmental and human rights group that monitors the timber trade, the guerrilla group was making between $10 million and $12 million a month by selling timber to Thai logging firms from its strongholds along the northern and eastern border regions.
But Khmer Rouge involvement in the trade has dropped considerably over the past year due to the defections last summer of some of its top leaders. The Thai government has also cracked down on the movement of logs from Khmer Rouge areas as a result of provisions in the US government's 1997 Foreign Operations Act, which prohibits aid to the military of any country which "is not acting vigorously" to stop the logging trade.
But the role being abandoned by the Khmer Rouge is being picked up by others, says Simon Taylor of Global Witnesses. Cambodia's co-prime ministers, Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen, have been accused by his group of doling out huge concessions to international logging firms equivalent to the country's entire remaining forested areas.
"More than $400 million should have been generated from timber that we know went out in 1995 and 1996, yet by December 1996 only $10 million had ended up in the Cambodian Finance Ministry," he notes. "An amount equivalent or greater to the entire national budget has just been spirited away."
Last March, Phnom Penh reached an agreement with the IMF in which it pledged to improve its management of the timber trade. But many doubt its ability to control logging in ex-Khmer Rouge areas, which are only nominally controlled by the government.
"The Cambodian government has no means to stop or even monitor the people working in those areas," Mr. Ganjanakhundee says.