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Kratie cut to shreds

timber Kratie
Rubber plantations sprawl across the concession owned by Vietnamese firm Tay Nam inside the Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary in Kratie province. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

‘I heard a f—ing crazy dog say that we can’t dock in Kampong Saom, but we definitely can do that,” a crackling voice declares boisterously.

The speaker, captured in video obtained by the Post, is part of an illegal timber syndicate.

As he brags about selling timber to people he refers to as “long nose”, Khmer slang for foreigner, he parades around a timberyard filled with container after container packed with luxury wood.

Posing in front of an open container of what is identified as either luxury Thnuong or rosewood logs, a man referred to as the owner, beams with a greedy smile.

“The most important thing is that everything is agreed from there, when [it] arrives here, they will take all [varieties],” a voice says.  

There are at least 37 container loads – hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of dollars worth of illegally logged timber in the yard.

The identity of the speaker is unknown and he could be anywhere in the country – indeed, this type of luxury wood harvesting is happening all over Cambodia.

But nowhere is it more blatantly visible than along the national roads, endlessly lined with rubber plantations, that bisect the northeastern provinces of Kratie, Mondulkiri and Ratanakkiri.

From the sky, it is clear that the multi-million dollar timber trade has already decimated Kratie’s 75,089 hectare Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary.

Imagery from two of NASA’s Landsat satellites compiled by the Post from photos snapped between 2009 and 2013 suggests that about 60 per cent of the entire sanctuary’s evergreen forest has become cleared land.    

Just a small fraction of the 55,135 hectares of known granted economic land concessions − with eight in total accounting for more than 70 per cent of the protected area – remain green, and there is little reason to suggest that forest coverage will stay for much longer.

Like a bad joke, a sign for one of the Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary’s ranger substations stands surrounded by hectare after hectare of clear-felled forest, some of it still smouldering.

The rest of the land within this ELC granted to Vietnamese firm Tay Nam K has already been turned into rubber plantations.

But at the gates of the nearby Binh Phuoc Kratie Rubber 2 Company’s concession, at the start of the adjacent 305,647 hectare Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area (SBCA), access is blocked. This protected area, to date relatively well preserved, is going next.

Binh Phuoc Kratie Rubber 2 also employs what could be read as satirical signage. Under one of the rubber company’s billboards is written “Investor: Tien Dat Furniture Corporation Binh Dinh”.

In June of last year, Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered three rubber firms, including Binh Phuoc, which holds an adjacent 10,000 hectare concession inside the SBCA, to stop logging some 85 per cent of their ELCs that remained evergreen or semi-evergreen forest.

The Landsat pictures show that, if anything, the firms Binh Phuoc Kratie Rubber 1 Company, Binh Phuoc Kratie Rubber 2 Company and Eastern Rubber (Cambodia) only intensified the rate of clearing.

It is hard to put precises percentages on the extent of forest clearance revealed through the satellite images but easy to see that huge swaths have disappeared in the three concessions since Hun Sen’s directive.

The prime minister’s green thumb intervention to save the sanctuary from the fate of its southern neighbour was seemingly reversed just months after he signed off on the order on June 28.

Snuol District Deputy Governor Men Vanna told the Post that after Hun Sen’s order was handed down, a joint research committee headed by Deputy Prime Minister Yim Chhaly was established.

The committee determined that because Binh Phuoc Kratie Rubber 2 Company was not threatening any existing forest, the firm would be given back 5,000 hectares – or half of their total original concession, he said.

“The forest that has been cleared by company is damaged forest, it is not evergreen forest – before the government granted both to the company,” Vanna said, but conceded even his officials had to gain permission to enter the area.

It’s an old excuse – that companies granted concessions in protected areas are just clearing already degraded forest – and one that flies in the face of what is clearly visible from space. The logging here, the satellite imagery shows, has specifically targeted evergreen forest.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
In the distance an excavator clears land on a concession owned by the Tay Nam K company in the Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary in Kratie province earlier this month. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A satellite image shows the Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary and Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area in 2011. Image Supplied

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Another satellite image shows deforestation in the two areas as of February 2013. Image Supplied

While satellite imagery can be ambiguous when analysing the destruction of deciduous forest, because the trees shed their leaves during the dry season, making it difficult to identify them, the results are far more conclusive when it comes to evergreen forest.

None of the three companies ordered to stop logging by the premier list contact details online. When the Post contacted the Cambodia office of the largest state Vietnamese rubber firm, Vietnam Rubber Group, an employee said he did not have the authority to speak about the firms, then declined to say whether the company was in any way linked to VRG. He told a reporter not to call back and directed questions to VRG’s Hanoi office, which could not be reached.

Deputy Prime Minister Yim Chhaly did not answer his phone.

Rather than the rubber company, Vanna put most of the blame for the logging of the protected forest on an influx of settlers who had moved in after the prime minister’s national land-titling scheme was launched in July.

In the time since, a population of 49 families that contested between 60 and 100 hectares of land also claimed by the company had swelled to 405 families, he said.

“The land that they take over is forest land; it is not land that they used to plant crops before. They are newcomers, and the reason that they take over the forest land that belongs to company is because they hope that the government will measure the land for them,” Vanna said.

Mom Sakin, 54, has fought for the protection of the SBCA since 2000 through the community forest program and led a direct intervention this week when villagers seized chainsaws and a bulldozer from Binh Phuoc Kratie Rubber 2 Company’s concession.

She is frustrated by the migrants who have flooded into the area since the prime minister’s land-titling scheme was initiated, but is far more concerned by the ruthless actions of a foreign company she said was destroying any natural resource in sight.

“Before, we lived with green fresh forest, but now we live with nothing. We see only the base of the trees and the smoke as they burn,” she said, lamenting that company employees had even shot most of the monkeys in the area to feed themselves.

Sakin painted a picture of anarchic destruction, whereby villagers were co-opted into logging for the company, which was protected by military police and soldiers, who in turn extorted money from illegal loggers at six “checkpoints” set up in the area.

She alleged that they charged loggers $2.50 per ox cart, $45 per chainsaw and $125 per truck load, while the company intimidated those who resisted their plans.  

“The company always shoots into the sky to threaten people who don’t want to move when they come to clear the land,” Sakin alleged, adding that some villagers eventually agreed to move for between $250 to $500.

Officials from the Snuol district Forestry Administration, which is responsible for protecting the SBCA, and the district military police did not answer their phones when contacted by the Post, while National Military Police Spokesman Kheng Tito said he was unaware of the issue.

One person who is aware of the issue is Prime Minister Hun Sen, who in February said he was joining the battle to protect luxury rosewood and crackdown on illegal logging.

Unfortunately, most of the rosewood in Cambodia is already gone, but there are many more varieties of lucrative trees left for the pilfering.

Meanwhile, for the masterminds of such operations, business continues with little fear of any repercussions.

“Hey, my friend, go and stand over there, I will film you in close up to let other people know you are a timber owner,” the voice on the illegal logging video sales pitch says.

“I film video; I will put in [digital] memory. Here, a timber owner, a rosewood owner. He owns the rosewood. Now you know him. If you need rosewood you can contact him.

He is the right guy,” the voice says as the owner poses in front of the camera.

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