As eyes were focused on vote-counting after the July 27 general election, the country's illegal loggers were busy cutting down trees. Global Witness (GW), the dismissed forest crime monitor, reported that election-period logging sprees combined with a new development scheme designed to circumvent logging restrictions have decimated large tracts of forest.
"We are entering a new phase of forest destruction in this country," said GW's Marcus Hardtke, adding that recently logged areas bear scars similar to the worst of the last election period in 1998.
"The situation in Oddar Meanchey is like it was in the whole country in 1997-98, with the military in charge and logging everywhere," he said.
GW, which has continued operating unofficially since its removal in April, maintains that enforcement attempts are not aimed at the heart of the problem: arresting perpetrators.
In the vast Pheapimex concession in August, officials from the Department of Forestry and Wildlife (DFW) burned several trucks, sawmills and confiscated lumber, but failed to arrest anyone. Further reports of confiscations have trickled in to GW, but increased enforcement has not yet translated into arrests.
A DFW official confirmed that "there are a lot of crackdowns". But, he said, it was only the recent operations that had been successful, following the passing of the Forestry Law last year. The department claims it has 15 teams in the field to investigate illegal loggers.
"Not only do we seize the illegal logs and trucks, but we also fine people," he said, adding that no evidence existed that military, police or large companies were involved in illegal logging. "I think the majority are just simple people cutting down forests."
But witnesses from forestry organizations tell a different story. David Mead of Conservation International said thousands of dollars worth of luxury timber were being shipped out on trains and trucks each night from former logging concessions and wildlife sanctuaries in Pursat. The smugglers regularly pass through police and forestry checkpoints unimpeded.
"It's not large scale commercial logging, but cumulatively, it amounts to very significant activity," he said.
GW said efforts to contain illegal logging were forcing operators to use new tactics. In Kampong Thom this March, monitors watched convoys of identical, newly built ox-carts load blocks of luxury timber on to waiting trucks. In GW's opinion, these organized operations, masquerading as subsistence enterprises, are most likely illegal exporters.
But the scale of these operations is dwarfed by a government policy that reclassifies vast areas of land as "state private property" suitable for agricultural plantations. Critics claim this allows logging companies to circumvent the 2002 logging ban by ostensibly clearing the land for crops.
"The [plantation grants] are authorized, but that doesn't make them legal," said Hardtke. "Many are done in secrecy."
One of the most egregious cases is Tumring commune in Kampong Thom province. The 6,200 hectare Chup Rubber Plantation was carved out of three canceled logging concessions in 2001. Most of the land is located on prime forests, despite the abundance of fallow land nearby.
No environmental impact assessments or community consultations were conducted. Former logging companies in the area, some linked to senior government officials, continued to transport logs and were given the rights to clear more trees. The resin trees tapped by the local Kuy community of more than 2,000 people were summarily cleared and spirit forests cut down.
Aem Phean, director of the provincial forestry department, recommended the project in 2000. In a letter to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, he wrote that the development would "enhance people's living conditions ... and protect the environment".
The area was ideal for a rubber plantation because it contained "degraded forest ... with no commercial value"-a conclusion at odds with thousands of new logs awaiting transport at the site. Residents were supposed to receive plots of the marginally-profitable rubber trees, but only a fraction of the land has been replanted, and residents have reported death threats and intimidation from plantation workers.
NGOs said the area was once one of the richest forests in Cambodia. Its liquidation for a rubber plantation was an environmental and human rights travesty.
"What they have done is take some of the most valuable forest area in Cambodia, log it, and feed the benefits to a very small group of people," said Andrew Cock, forestry advisor at NGO Forum. "It's done in a way that many in the legal community seem to accept as legal. It's not just removing certain trees that are valuable, it's removing everything."
GW estimates that to date, at least two-thirds of the forest has been cut. Colexim, a former concessionaire owned jointly by the government and a Japanese partner, claimed "the right to collect all timbers" in a log transport exemption proposal to the government. That exemption has not been granted.
The company, which held logging rights to the canceled concession, is now poised to clear-cut the remaining areas of the 'plantation'. In its log transport application, Colexim claimed it "must take all timbers from the [rubber] cultivation area". It said that would reduce illegal logging activities, employ 300 "jobless" employees, and help resolve lawsuits by unpaid creditors.
The company estimates more than 2,000 logs, or more than seven million cubic meters, await transport. More timber will be cut, but just a fraction of the thousands of logged hectares have been replanted with rubber trees.
Although Tumring is considered by many to be the worst example of this new practice, it is not the biggest. Pheapimex controls land in Pursat and Kampong Chhnang encompassing 300,000 hectares for eucalyptus plantation.
And while civil society organizations have protested the practice, officials at DFW expressed little concern at its impact on forest resources.
"The companies plant rubber trees, so they can get the benefit," said Chheng Kim Sun, the director of the Forestry Management Office at DFW. "That's not diminishing Cambodia's forests."
* Thai authorities confiscated 1,610 high-grade logs on August 7 after police raided a warehouse near Bangkok, the Bangkok Post reported on August 8. The Thais said the logs had been smuggled illegally from Cambodia and Laos by Titikarn Logging, a Thai company.
Some of the luxury timber, such as rosewood, sells for $1,000 a cubic meter. Around 230 cubic meters was seized. A Thai official said the smuggling of timber from Cambodia and Laos was rampant.