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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cambodian Forests Feed Neighbors' Timber Needs

Cambodian Forests Feed Neighbors' Timber Needs

Second story in a three-part series on forestry in Cambodia ambodia's forests are

being whittled away in large part by its own neighbors-Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos-all

of which have enacted their own restrictions on logging and are desperate for cheap,

high-quality Cambodian wood.

Laos, for example, has banned foreign concessions but still allows its state logging

enterprises to log and process timber for export. Despite the ban, Laos' sawn wood

products still account for 35 percent of the national export earnings. Much of that

supply comes from Cambodia.

The state's Development Agriculture Forestry and Industry enterprise in Laos provides

elephants for hauling logs out of Stung Treng and other Cambodian provinces known

for teak, rosewood, and other first-quality wood. The logs are transported by trucks

and barge to the Lao border towns of Weun Kham, and then sawn for export.

Eyewitnesses report that Lao middlemen routinely meet with high-ranking Cambodian

military men in Pakse, the capital of the Lao southern province of Champassak, to

cut timber deals. One such deal sealed over dinner between Thai and Lao middlemen

was worth $325,000.

On the Cambodian side of the border, however, a provincial official reported that

much of the area's forest has disappeared into Laos. He predicts that by next year

many of the trees in Prey Long-a forest spanning parts of Kratie, Stung Treng, Preah

Vihear and Kompong Thom provinces-will also be shipped away to Lao sawmills.

People living in the border areas claim that the timbering cannot be stopped because

loggers are protected by heavily armed guards that have "shoot-to-kill"

orders if there is any interference with their activities.

Unpaid soldiers in Cambodia's eastern provinces have struck up similar deals with

Vietnamese loggers. According to a February 1992 report by the NGO Forum of Phnom

Penh, Vietnamese loggers take as much as 2,500 to 3,000 cubic meters of trees over

the border every day.

Sources close to the Phnom Penh Department of Forestry report that in February 1992,

the department sent its representatives to stop Vietnamese loggers and their armed

Khmer cohorts in Ratanakiri province. The forestry personnel were taken hostage by

the loggers and released only after a high-level forestry official arrived to negotiate

their release for 1 million riel (about U.S. $1,200 at the time).

The profits for Vietnamese loggers are so lucrative that they are even willing to

risk fatal confrontations with the Khmer Rouge. In July 1991, 100 Vietnamese loggers

were captured by the Khmer Rouge, according to a report in the Bangkok Nation. Most

of the loggers were summarily executed, with eight escaping back to Ho Chi Minh City

to tell the tale.

A Nov. 1991 report by consultant Michael Benge for the U.S. Agency for International

Development (USAID) stated that more than half the timber harvested in Cambodia is

taken by Vietnam. One 72,000 hectare concession in Kratie province alone exports

more than U.S. $3 million worth of logs to Vietnam each year, according to Benge.

"Logs and lumber have been a form of payment for Vietnamese troops who fought

in Cambodia and a means of repaying Phnom Penh's debt to both Vietnam and the Soviet

Union for their extensive military assistance," Benge wrote.

Much of Cambodia's wood, however, ends up in Thailand. With the largest appetite

for timber, and the longest borders in common with Cambodia, Thailand's timber companies-which

are closely linked to military and provincial leaders-have lined up to sign concessions

with all four Cambodian factions.

The Thais are helping to improve roads along the border and clear mines in Cambodia-which

will expedite not only the repatriation of refugees but logging efforts as well.

According to the Thai newspaper Phu Jad Karn, 15 logging companies applied for concessions

to Prince Ranariddh's faction in Oddar Meanchey, but only five received them. As

of December 1991, 50,000 trees had been felled for export over the border by these

companies. Ranariddh's faction has subsequently announced a logging ban in the zones

under its control.

Last November, other reports from the Thai press stated that four Thai firms signed

concessions with the Khmer Rouge to transport logs out of Siem Reap province.

In addition, the Thai newspaper Khu Khaeng Thurakit reported last November that another

Thai company, BLP Co. Ltd., had won a concession in Preah Vihear province from representatives

of the State of Cambodia (SOC) government for an area of about 200,000 hectares.

SOC Forestry officials say that BLP's concession is for only 30,000 hectares.

According to SOC Forestry officials, other foreign companies with signed contracts

with the Phnom Penh government include:

  • the Thai company Wanachai (30,000 hectares in Koh Kong province),
  • the Singaporean company Double Ace (65,000 hectares in Koh Kong and Kampot),
  • a Vietnamese company, Sobexim (10,000 hectares in Ratanakiri).

The Thai press has also listed Somphorn Sahawat, the owner of S.K. Air, as holding

a concession in Koh Kong province (100,000 hectares).

Other government concessions under consideration include a proposal by the Malaysia-based

McGate Corporation, which is seeking a 20-year contract to log 100,000 hectares in

Kratie and Stung Treng provinces.

In addition, Colexim, a Cambodian firm, has a joint venture with the Japanese company

Okata to operate a sawmill on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Another joint venture

sawmill between the Cambodian company Kasotim and a Soviet company has not yet opened.

The SOC Ministry of Industry has also leased a plywood factory to Pelico, a French-Khmer

company.

"Because in Cambodia there's no big industry, everything relies on the natural

resources," said a SOC Forestry official. "If there was a logging ban,

how could the government support itself. We'd like to ban logging if we had some

other source of revenue-but where can we get it?"

According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Cambodia's forests are

currently being cut at a rate that is more than twice its sustainable yield.

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