Sheltering under a blue tarpaulin amid dense woodland in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains, Nhean* sits and waits for night to fall after a long day scouring the protected forest for luxury timber.
He says he works for a broker who is a supplier to one of Cambodia’s most prolific logging tycoons, Try Pheap, and has journeyed across a vast area of southern Cambodia moving on to a new patch of forest when the sought-after hardwood is exhausted.
“I bring my little children and wife along with me, but I will go back to my hometown within the year,” he says. “My children do not go to school. But if I left them at home, no one would look after them.”
Nhean is one of hundreds of illegal loggers who live a mobile and impermanent existence following the logging brokers, armed with chainsaws and buffalo-drawn carts.
In what amounts to a kind of unofficial franchise arrangement, loggers such as Nhean take out loans to buy equipment and in turn supply sawn rosewood, beng, thnong and other luxury timber to middlemen who say they work for Pheap.
Pheap has, over the past decade, risen from relative obscurity to be one of the most prominent tycoons in Cambodia, with interests in casinos, plantations, logging, mining, hotels and real estate.
Since early 2013, his companies have been granted the rights to collect and buy timber from economic land concessions in 15 provinces, as well as all timber impounded by the Forestry Administration and Ministry of Environment.
Much of that wood has been classified as “waste wood” by the government in order to justify the sale, and Pheap is legally obliged to destroy most of it. Despite a prime ministerial order issued earlier this year banning the collection, transportation and ownership of rosewood, Conservation International has said that employees of Pheap’s companies took some of the protected wood held as evidence in illegal logging cases from their rangers just days after permission was given for him to collect the remaining timber.
Pheap was also granted the right to process and buy yellow vine in the Atai hydropower reservoir – providing it did not affect the environment and he paid tax – despite Cambodia’s forestry laws explicitly prohibiting the processing of the substance, which is used in traditional medicines and may be linked to the manufacture of narcotics.
Representatives of Pheap’s companies deny involvement in the trade when questioned about the loggers’ claims, saying instead that the company only collects “old” or “waste” wood.
But years of working for brokers who say they supply Pheap’s companies has schooled loggers like Nhean in the tricks of the trade.
“He [the broker] is not afraid of being arrested, because he’s been doing business for so many years, since we began working with a supervisor called Oun,” Nhean says. “In a month, I can go logging for two weeks collecting the logs and sleeping under a tent in the forest. It’s damned hard work, especially with young children along for the ride, but I have no choice but to put up with it.”
The loggers often face a cycle of debt after entering the business. Lured by the potentially high pay-offs, they borrow money from their bosses to buy equipment.
Nhean complains that he has little to show for his years of backbreaking labour.
“I have been doing this business for years and now I have nothing left. I feel pity for my children … because when they see me doing this trade they will follow suit when they grow up. We have no education so we can’t find jobs easily; that’s why we work out in the rain.”
At night, trucks bearing the logo of the Try Pheap Group arrive in Veal Vong village to transport the wood up a road that leads to a company property near the district Forestry Administration office, villagers told the Post.
A villager who has monitored the transport of the timber from the Cardamoms said he did “not know where they forward the timber after they bring it to the head office”.
A former logger who has settled in the area, Sok Mao* is worried his family will go hungry as the thousands of illegal loggers migrating to the region bring herds of buffalo to graze the farmer’s fields.
But Mao is more afraid of the mixed security forces he says are hired by Pheap to help control the trade and stop the loggers from selling their illegal goods to competitors.
“The company’s soldiers say what we cut to build houses is illegal. But if we log and sell it to them it is legal. I don’t know how that is legal, but we would like to see that law,” he said.
A military police officer, who declined to be named for security reasons, said his unit had been ordered to man checkpoints along the road in Ksach Puok village to provide cover for the operations of Pheap. But, he said, if the officers attempted to search trucks belonging to Pheap they would face suspension without pay.
The military police officer said the brokers in the area included Van Try, the father-in-law of deputy provincial military police commander Ken Sara, who is also a supervisor; a feared broker known for acts of violence in Trapaing Chong commune called Ty; a Forestry Administration official called Pov; and Mao Channy, a former driver for Ouk Kim San, who works for Pheap’s MDS Import Export Company.
“All of them are destroyers of the forest. They are untouchable and can do whatever they want,” he said.
None of the brokers the military police officer named could be reached for comment.
Kheang Sochivoin, MDS Import Export’s manager in Pursat province, declined to comment on the allegations.
Though Pheap could not be reached either, he issued a company memo in May 2013 that appears to have forbidden logging outside of the company’s rubber concession in Veal Veng district. “The company does not permit or recognise the timber business outside of its concession. This will let the authorities take legal action against the perpetrators [of forest crimes],” the memo said.
A provincial court official, who requested anonymity, said the authorities were unwilling to go after Pheap’s illegal operations in the area, preferring to target small-time loggers for extortion.
“If the authorities wanted to stop forest crimes, it would not be hard to find them. But they lack the will to do so,” the official said.
Sokea*, a logger who says he supplies the local timber syndicate, told the Post that the security forces working for Pheap will allow wood not meeting the company’s quality-control guidelines to be sold to other merchants. But if logs more than 1.5 metres in length are sold to competitors, they will be seized and transported to the company’s storage facility further north.
“We cannot protest against them, because we are also breaking the law,” he said. “We just have to make sure that the soldiers do not get angry and shoot us. But we also don’t want to sell to [Pheap] because they offer such a low price.”
In the villages now consumed by the rush to log what remains of the ecologically vital protected trees in this district, a network of spies who report to the syndicate has infiltrated the area, Sokea claims.
“The villagers can’t escape since they sent their spies into the villages. If we try to escape, the spies report to the company and the company will come to arrest us.”
A young boy from Prey Veng province who accompanied his father on a logging trip last month said he had previously made two two-week excursions into the Cardamoms to experience the life of a logger working for Pheap.
“I wanted to know what the life of a logger was like, and now I realise how tough it is,” he said as he quietly cooked lunch under the shade of his makeshift tent. “They have to drive their carts through the forest and climb mountains both day and night, but they earn very little money.
“Sometimes we want to betray the company and sell to another merchant, but if we are caught we will just have the wood confiscated and sent to the [Forestry Administration] office,” he said.
Chheng Kimsun, the director of the Forestry Administration, could not be reached for comment.
The allegations against Pheap follow a long-established pattern that would ultimately lead to the destruction of what remains of Cambodia’s once vast forests, said Chhim Savuth, executive director of the Natural Resource Protection Group and a former forest program officer with the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.
“The strategy is to annihilate the forests of Cambodia. Trees are not small, like [concealed] drugs. Why can they not stop this when the logs are being transported in huge trucks?
“It is regretful that the authorities in some provinces simply seize the wood to sell back to Try Pheap.”
Cheat* is a local to the Cardamoms, and like the migratory pool of labour that the brokers rely on to rake in millions in profit for their superiors, he would rather not sell to Pheap’s company, preferring other merchants who offer nearly twice as much.
“I don’t want to sell to the company, but it’s much better than it all being taken. We live under their control, and that’s why we have to bear it.”
While other merchants would pay up to $1,000 per cubic metre, the company offers as little as $500 to Cheat.
The rosewood and beng trees are all gone now, Cheat says, and the thnong and neang nuon are falling fast.
“There is only one tycoon in the Cardamom Mountains and that is Try Pheap. This time the tycoon will finish the forest in Pursat.”
* Names have been changed to protect identities