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Business boom depletes forests

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A young carpenter chisels a design into a piece of furniture made from illegally logged timber in Mondulkiri province in July.

Demand far exceeds supply and will wipe out these species unless stronger  protection measures are put in place

Above the hum of wood sanders and electric saws, conversations in Vietnamese, Chinese, Khmer and Bonong can be heard in a factory producing furniture made from illegally felled trees.

The Vietnamese-owned business lies in a remote Mondulkiri village and deals exclusively in exotic timber: beng, th’nong, and two types of rosewood. These rare trees are protected by Cambodian law, Forestry Administration officials say, yet the Vietnamese owner says her factory has produced and marketed luxury furniture without interference for about a year.

The factory owner said she buys wood from loggers who work mainly at night. Some furniture from her shop, which she operates with her Chinese husband, appears in storefronts in Vietnam, but most of it is sold to shops in the provincial town of Sen Monorom in Keo Seima district.

Business appears to be thriving. Blocks of precious timber are stacked beside unpolished tables and bed frames. Fresh wood shavings scent the dusty outdoor workspace. Several Cambodian and Bonong carpenters chisel meticulous designs into rosewood benches that the owner says will sell for upwards of US$500.

“The police and the army don’t give us problems. We are a small business. We are far away from people,” she explained.

Removed from the nearest town by a four-hour motorcycle ride through rivers, dry creek beds and swathes of mud, her operation is far from the reaches of authorities – which experts believe are failing to stem the illegal wood trade.

During the past four years, Cambodia has seen drastic decreases in rare species of trees due to illegal logging, community research from the National Resource Protection Group indicates. In 2008, the Kingdom retained more than 30 percent of its pre-Khmer Rouge luxury wood resources, Chut Wutty, the group’s director, said. Today, that number has fallen to a staggering 3 percent in Mondulkiri, Ratanakkiri, Preah Vihear and four other heavily forested provinces.

“The situation is getting worse and worse. In some places, all of these kinds of trees have been cut down,” he said.

Cambodia’s Forestry Administration is responsible for the regulation of illegal logging. Yet the vastness of the Kingdom’s forests greatly limits its  protection efforts, David Emmett, regional director of Conservation International’s Greater Mekong programs, said. “It is next to impossible for the Forestry Administration to have people visiting every remote village. The main issue then comes down to the implementation of forestry law by local police,” Emmett said, adding that Conservation International has not seen the same level of deforestation reported by the NRPG because it operates only in protected forests. The NRPG is active in protected and non-protected areas.

Song Kheang, Forestry Administration director in Mondulkiri, said that although his department has banned furniture factories from doing business in the province, the illegal logging industry continues to grow. Criminal networks that move timber are increasingly sophisticated. Loggers evade administration efforts with new greater cunning, such as transporting timber in luxury vehicles as opposed to traditional logging trucks, he said.

Rampant corruption could account for many of the shortcomings in police enforcement. Bribes taken by local police and forestry officials – a much sought after source of income – stymies the already scant level of regulation, Chut Wutty said.

“[Officials] get two salaries: one from the government, one from the shops that sell the wood,” he said, adding that border police will receive bribes for as much a $1,000 per cubic meter of timber as it crosses into Vietnam. Middlemen, who acquire a cubic meter from wood cutters for about $1,000, sell to Vietnamese buyers often for more than $7,000, he said.

More than 85 percent of Cambodia’s illegally felled timber is sold into Vietnam or Thailand, Chut Wutty said. The remaining 15 percent is sold domestically in the Kingdom’s more than 2,000 furniture shops, he said.

In Phnom Penh’s Chamkarmon district, Ung Sothearith sells luxury wood products for thousands of dollars at his furniture store. Customers in the capital pay $4,000 to $5,000 for a finely polished four-piece bench-and-table set made of beng, he said.

Demand for beng has increased in tandem with Cambodia’s rapidly multiplying hotels, mansions and office boardrooms, Berry Mulligan, Cambodia program manager at Fauna and Flora International, said.

The timber, known for its flame-like hue, is considered one of the world’s most threatened trees by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. “The demand for beng and rosewood timber far exceeds the supply and will wipe out these species unless stronger protection measures are put in place in the forest,” he said.

Ung Sothearith said his store buys pre-made furniture from Ratanakkiri and Preah Vihear provinces, and maintains that his sales are legal as long as the shop doesn’t make the furniture.

Laws regulating luxury wood sales are complex. Mondulkiri Forestry Administration director Song Kheang said such furniture sales were legal as long as the wood was purchased via government auction of confiscated timber. For consumers, no method of determining the legality of Cambodia’s luxury furniture exists because no certification system is in place, Emmett said.

Further complication arises from the origin of the wood.

In 2010, a government decree allowed for the cutting of flora in flood plains produced by newly built dams, Chut Wutty said. Although rare tree species grow in the Kingdom’s highlands, far from flood plains in river basins, the announcement gave rise to a slew of illicit felling.

Loggers can simply claim the timber was cut in a dammed area in Kampot and Pursat provinces, he said. “The decree is a contradiction of all the laws from the past,” Chut Wutty said. Vague logging regulations such as these continue to challenge countries with depleting forest reserves.

A lack of clarity and consistency between land and forest laws, as well as between national and local laws, often give rise to illegal logging and land disputes worldwide, said Alison Hoare, a senior researcher fellow with the Energy, Environment and Research Programme at Chatham House in London.

If continued unabated, illegal logging threatens to wholly deplete Cambodia’s rare tree species, Chut Wutty said. Once the region’s most florally intact country, several species face extinction. The loss of one tree species can cause an unhealthy chain reaction throughout the environment as a whole, Mulligan said. “Removal of one species may not have an immediate effect on the entire ecosystem but contributes to the gradual unravelling of ecological relationships that have evolved and stabilised over millennia,” he said.

The damage is not yet irreversible and incentives for leaving Cambodia’s rare trees standing are increasing, Mulligan said. The value of forest carbon projects, which mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide, may one day compete with logging revenues. Future funding for carbon stock projects will rely on intact high-biomass trees such beng and offer potential revenue sources for forest communities and the government, Mulligan said.

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