Despite a ban on the export of timber to Vietnam and the creation of a much-publicised anti-logging task force, Cambodia last year still exported nearly $33 million dollars’ worth of unprocessed logs to its eastern neighbour, a volume more than double that of 2015, according to Vietnamese customs data.
The figures, collected by US NGO Forest Trends, reveal that in 2016 Vietnam imported 139,306 cubic metres of logs from Cambodia, a sharp rise from 59,292 cubic metres in 2015 and just 460 in 2014.
The imports saw a staggering spike in November and December of last year. Of the total volume of logs, which was valued at $32.86 million, 56 percent was received by Vietnam in November and December, with 43 percent in the latter month alone.
The figures further call into question the government’s claims it had put an end to mass logging after instituting a ban on timber exports to Vietnam in January 2016 and creating a task force to crack down on smugglers led by military police chief Sao Sokha – who has himself been linked to illegal logging in the past.
Along with unprocessed logs, the export of which was supposedly made illegal more than two decades ago, trade in more lucrative sawn wood also continued last year, though in far smaller quantities than in 2015.
In 2016 Cambodia exported just over 171,000 cubic metres of sawn wood to Vietnam – an amount valued at nearly $150 million – compared with nearly 375,000 cubic metres the year before.
The volume, Forest Trends noted, was significant nonetheless.
Long-time anti-logging activist Marcus Hardtke said that although the government’s “crackdown” had put “a dent” in cross border trade, the figures suggested things were “back or normal, or worse”.
He said the end-of-year spike in log exports corresponded with anecdotal reports of increased logging following the end of last year’s rainy season.
“There’s been an increase in logging activity this dry season, which is amazing because the government is stating the opposite,” Hardtke said.
“Where did this wood come from? There are no large-scale timber plantations in Cambodia [so] we have to assume it is from natural forests.”
According to Forest Trends, the O’Yadav district crossing in heavily forested Ratanakkiri province saw the greatest volume of logs. The data also notes the average price for logs fell from $285 per cubic metre in 2015 to $235 last year.
A quarter of the logs were graded by the Vietnamese as belonging to the second-highest grade of wood.
Large amounts of sokram and pchek timber, designated as first-grade timber by Cambodia, were among the exports.
Reached yesterday, several officials declined to comment on the figures, saying they had not verified them. Eng Hy, spokesman for the military police, hung up on a reporter when asked if the crackdown on logging and timber smuggling had been successful.
Environment Ministry spokesman Chea Sam Ang said he had not seen the data and referred questions to the Forestry Administration, whose spokesman could not be reached.