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A truck from Try Pheap’s company sits on a property next to a stockpile of timber in an economic land concession in Ratanakkiri
A truck from Try Pheap’s company sits on a property next to a stockpile of timber in an economic land concession in Ratanakkiri province last month. Heng Chivoan

Activists stumped by licence

Logging tycoon Try Pheap has been granted a licence to collect all remaining seized timber from government facilities across the country – timber held as evidence in ongoing cases against illegal loggers.

Huge stocks of timber held at facilities run by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the Ministry of Environment were signed over to Pheap’s MDS Import Export Company and MDS Thmodar SEZ Company in a letter from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s cabinet on July 24.

Last week, MDS employees allegedly removed timber from numerous government facilities in at least two provinces, including four stations in Pursat province linked to NGO Conservation International.

While it was not immediately clear how much timber remained in government hands or if Pheap had already negotiated a price, the timber baron paid about $3.4 million last March for the right to collect nearly 5,000 cubic metres of luxury timber from the Forestry Administration.

Kheang Sochivoin, MDS Import Export’s manager in Pursat province, claimed the company had to destroy scrap timber before it would be allowed to place a bid for the remaining luxury wood, which can fetch tens of thousands of dollars per cubic metre when exported abroad.

“We are destroying wood the government regards as illegal, and then we will reach a stage where we can negotiate a bid [for the rest],” he said.

The Council of Ministers’ order says the transfer of the timber was made to prevent it from being damaged or stolen by “rogue people”.

According to two letters signed last month by Bun Uy, a secretary of state at the Council of Ministers, the firms are obligated to destroy some of the timber but are permitted to export whatever remains.

“The companies have to export the rest of wood in compliance with the [law],” it says.

Lor Rasmey, secretary-general at the Agriculture Ministry, replied to the Council of Ministers’ letter on July 25 by writing to the Forestry Administration’s country director, Chheang Kimsun.

“Please . . . cooperate with the companies tasked with clearing the stock to facilitate them to collect and destroy waste wood first and to make a bid [for the remainder],” he said in the letter.

Kimsun responded on July 28 by ordering all Forestry Administration staff to comply with the order.

He said that only specific types of wood were approved to be collected and destroyed, which did not include rosewood. “It’s very specific,” he said of the order. “They will destroy [the timber].”

Eang Sophaleth, a spokesman for Prime Minister Hun Sen, referred questions to Rasmey, who said he was unsure how much timber had been signed over to Pheap.

“We are preparing [the data], but we cannot say how much wood we have, because I do not possess the documents,” he said.

Despite Sochivoin saying that only waste wood had so far been collected, Toby Eastoe of Conservation International said Pheap’s employees last week confiscated rosewood from four sites in Pursat province, where it was being stored to be used as evidence against illegal loggers.

“Between July 28 and August 1, the Try Pheap Company came out to four [Forestry Administration] ranger stations in Pursat and collected all of the rosewood confiscated from illegal loggers,” he said.

“That timber is evidence in crimes and should not be taken until the crimes have been processed.”

The order took provincial-level officials by surprise.

Say Nora, Kampong Thom provincial deputy prosecutor, was forced into hiding in May after unknown assailants threw a grenade into his home in an apparent attempt on his life after he arrested 11 members of an illegal-logging syndicate.

Yesterday, he questioned the legality of the order to sell remaining stocks of timber to Pheap, adding that he had written to the Ministry of Justice to demand answers.

“I have reported to the Ministry of Justice, which is my superior, to check whether or not the notice is legal, because the cases are still processing,” he said. “But the evidence is being transported [away].”

Chhim Savuth, director of Natural Resources Protection Group, said the new order followed a pattern of the government forming back-room deals with Pheap.

“They do so to avoid paying tax to the government,” he said.

Neil Loughlin, technical adviser at rights group Adhoc, said it was “breathtaking” that the government would sign over the impounded timber to Pheap.

“If the order paves the way for Pheap to buy the remaining luxury timber impounded by the government, it opens the door to further encroachment on Cambodia’s already much depleted forests and raises questions as to the government’s commitment to stop illegal logging,” he said.

“What is more, in the same document the government calls for measures to promote reforestation and end illegal logging.

“Either the government is committed to ending the trade in illegal timber or it isn’t, and from this, sadly, it looks like it’s the latter.”

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