The scale of mass logging in once-dense woodlands in Cambodia’s north now more closely resembles the free-for-all of a gold rush than the sustainable forestry more often associated with these communities.
With the financial backing of powerful businessmen, villagers in three districts of Preah Vihear are clear-felling at will, transporting the logs on homemade tractors to their houses, ready for Try Pheap’s MDS Import Export Co Ltd to carry them to the border with Vietnam.
Pheap has a licence to collect and transport timber impounded by Forestry Administration officials in the province and logs cleared from economic land concessions. But the licence does not permit his company to pay villagers to log in community forests.
Nearly every household here has at least one chainsaw at the ready for the daily harvest. In two months, MDS will move its operations to another province – Stung Treng – as it becomes less profitable to continue the trade here.
The tractors, overladen with rare thnong wood, travel freely in Chey Sen district’s Thmear commune, unhindered by security forces and officials.
“The boss comes to buy timber at people’s homes, and they spray paint a notification of purchase,” says Thong Kosal, a resident protesting against the logging in one village in the commune.
“But I do not know what it [the paint] says, because it is written in French. At night, after they collect it, they will transport it from the village.”
Kosal says a representative of MDS came to the village, asking them to go into the forest and clear as much as possible. Traders from the company arrive in the evening to weigh and price the stacks of wood piled under each house.
Villagers say the authorities are tolerating this great rush to log Preah Vihear because they have been bought off by the company.
“Since before and after the election results, Try Pheap and his representative Sreang Meng have come to the commune to encourage people in the village to go log the forest to sell,” Kosal says.
About $10 is paid to the police and forestry officials per tractor load, villagers say. The money flowing into this community has turned previously ardent conservationists into lumberjacks. In one village in Thmear commune, locals estimate that on any given day 3 million riel ($750) worth of protected thnong wood sits ready for its long journey to the carpenters’ workshops of Vietnam and China. By the time it reaches Vietnam, the same haul can fetch about $9,000 for MDS.
“Currently, doing forest business is easier,” Kosal says. “Previously, police and soldiers did the business, but now it is the people’s turn.”
Try Pheap declined to comment on the allegations this week, initially saying a reporter called the wrong number before adding “I am in France.” Pheap’s representative in Preah Vihear, Ouk Kimsan, who is also a former director of Pursat province’s Forestry Administration, and Meng could not be reached.
Logging has intensified in Cambodia over the past five years, according to several recent studies. Satellite data from NASA analysed by Open Development Cambodia in December last year estimated that about a third of the country’s total forest cover has been lost since 1973. The figure is likely higher, as it includes cash crop plantations such as rubber.
Chheang Vuthy, a forest activist in Preah Vihear, says the last scraps of forest in the province will be gone if Pheap’s company continues to provide incentives for the villagers to log.
“We are allowed to do business at our will without fearing arrest, because the company pays the authorities. This has taken place since the company arrived. They do not make arrests and they allow us to do whatever we want. They do business like they’re harvesting cassava,” he says.
Vuthy says that while local communities have always logged and made use of the forest resources, without the companies’ presence, there would be no danger of the forest disappearing altogether.
“Without Try Pheap and Sreang Meng here, the forest would be sustained,” he says.
The loggers say that since the clear-felling business in Preah Vihear mushroomed in mid-2013, it has become less profitable for MDS to continue to operate there. The next target, they say, is neighbouring Stung Treng province.
“The forest there [in Preah Vihear] is gone. The government cannot deny that the forest is logged. It is logged out,” says Pha Doung, a lumberjack in the Sre Veal area of Thmear commune, adding that he has recently been on MDS-sponsored logging trips to Stung Treng.
A logger in Sangkum Thmey district, who claims to work for Pheap, says the logs piled on his truck were owned by Meng and a former senior intelligence official.
“We transport it for Try Pheap. I just transport it for them. I cannot say how much I am paid. But if we commit forest crimes, we will make much money,” he says.
Since the fatal shooting of forest activist Chut Wutty in 2012, Chhim Savuth has spearheaded the struggle to end industrial-scale logging. He describes how Pheap’s company MDS has driven villagers to carry out work that would normally be reserved for company employees.
Savuth blames the former intelligence official, along with local businessmen and his deputy, Kimsan, for the deluge of illegal logging.
He estimates 190 cubic metres of timber has been exported daily to Vietnam since MDS started collecting from locals in Sangkum Thmey, Chreb and Chey Sen districts In May.
“Try Pheap’s company is responsible for transporting all the timber to Vietnam via the Dong 7 checkpoint in Memot district, Kampong Cham province,” he says. “They charge $1,800 per cubic metre.”
If the figures are accurate, this means MDS is raking in $360,000 each day from this provincial business alone.
Cambodia is often praised by the UN for having strong conservation laws, however Savuth says that what is done in law and in practice are worlds apart.
“Without hope for illegal logging prevention, people cut down trees to sell for companies, because they think that if they do not cut it, timber traders will,” he says.
Chheng Kimsun, director general of the Forestry Administration, could not be reached for comment.
Sen Chey district’s forestry chief, Chhim Sok Sivutha, said Pheap’s MDS firm was not licensed to collect and transport wood in the area, but declined to comment as to the inaction of the authorities.
According to a report by the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force, Pheap’s companies are licensed to buy wood from 27 economic land concessions in 12 provinces, as well as from its own concessions, which cover about 70,000 hectares in 10 provinces.
Sat Yorn, chief of police in Chey Sen district, said the authorities had banned the loggers from blanket-felling the forests. “But we cannot stop them completely.”