Illegal logging of staggering proportions abetted by military personnel is decimating stocks of luxury rosewood in the Central Cardamom Protected Forest, while the conservation group tasked with protecting the area and its government counterparts deny the trade is even happening.
In a period of several hours beginning late on Sunday night, the Post witnessed at least nine industrial transport trucks, seven pick-up trucks and one Land Rover packed with timber drive out of Koh Kong province's Thma Bang district in the CCPF on one road alone. Large numbers of trucks could also be heard using a nearby connecting road.
Several of the trucks that the Post was able to inspect closely were carrying heavy loads of illegal rosewood.
Villagers, loggers and conservationists have verified that Forestry Administration officials, military officers and rangers working in partnership with the NGO Conservation International are making no effort to stop the massive trade in protected rosewood.
In many cases, it is alleged, they are actively profiting.
Thuy Pet, 50, a former soldier from military division 5 now living in Thma Bang district's Russey Chrum village, estimated that during peak logging periods, anywhere from 80 to 90 trucks carried timber out of the protected area every night.
"I think nobody can stop this until they finish. When they finish, they will go to another area," he said.
Another villager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that about 2,000 people were now logging in the area.
"Residents used to be farmers, but now they've become loggers because of money," he said.
Chut Wutty, director of the Natural Resources Protection Group, estimates that tens of thousands of dollars worth of rosewood, which fetches between US$5,000 and $8,000 per cubic metre, is being transported out of Thma Bang district every day.
"This area is the last area in Cambodia [with any rosewood]. They've destroyed Ratanakkiri, Mondulkiri, Bokor National Park, Pursat – after that, they went to O'Som [commune]. After that, they went to Thma Bang," he said.
In four or five months, stocks of rosewood would be exhausted in Thma Bang district, at which point, previous experience suggests, the loggers will turn their attention to lower grades of timber, Chut Wutty said.
The 402,000 hectare CCPF is one of the largest conservation areas in Cambodia, covering six districts across Koh Kong, Pursat and Kampong Speu provinces.
It is considered to be one of Indochina's richest conservation areas in terms of biodiversity, with vast numbers of endemic Cambodian flora that supports populations of pangolins, Asian elephants, Siamese crocodiles and other endangered or threatened species.
A conservation researcher who has worked extensively in Thma Bang but declined to be named, said the district was just one of four sites within the CCPF where tens of millions of dollars of rosewood had been cleared by companies abusing licences which only grant them permission to clear areas intended for dam reservoirs.
"It's like a gold rush – the value of rosewood is so high, it's irresistible for cutters and middlemen," the researcher said.
"It's all relatively organised, how much the loggers and middlemen have to pay, and to whom. They know which checkpoints they have to go through. It has apparently reached the stage where most young men in Tatai Leu commune [in Thma Bang district] have been absorbed into the rosewood extraction."
Military personnel swarm Russey Chrum village in Thma Bang district, an almost endless procession of 4WD vehicles rolling in and out of town.
They are matched only in number by the torrent of heavy transport trucks that clumsily rumble through the village during the day on their way to and from the forest.
While investigating the trade, Post staff were stopped on two occasions by military police or soldiers claiming to work as security guards for a company the men refused to identify.
Both times, the journalists were threatened with arrest and ordered to delete photos of trucks carrying illegal rosewood. The soldiers refused to explain why.
On the second occasion, military police set up a road block to apprehend the journalists in order to delete their photos.
About two kilometres from Russey Chrum village, situated on a small side road, a group of about 60 migrant loggers from provinces such as Pursat and Kampong Speu have cobbled together a makeshift camp of tarpaulins and cooking stoves. From there, they make daily forays into the nearby mountains in search of rosewood stumps, which they sell for a small profit.
Three months ago, Chhay Sengheng left his family in Kampong Speu province and headed to the Cardamom Mountains in search of a better salary. Previously, he had earned 20,000 to 30,000 riel per day as a builder.
Now he ventures every day far into the surrounding mountains searching for rosewood stumps left by previous logging operations.
"Of course, it is quite difficult to go away from the family, but we have no choice, we have to support our livelihood," he said.
Chhay Senghy estimates that in the previous three days alone, one to two tonnes of rosewood had been trucked out of Thma Bang from his site. No one has told him it is forbidden to take rosewood out of the CCPF.
No more than 10 minutes down the road, a thick pile of young rosewood timber lies poorly hidden next to a weigh station overseen by a man dressed in a Royal Cambodian Armed Forces uniform, and surrounded by RCAF paraphernalia.
Standing beside a set of scales, a buyer, who declined to give his name, said he paid 1,500 riel per kilogram of rosewood stump. He would not say to whom or for how much he sold the timber or where the young rosewood planks had come from.
"I'm just a worker," he said.
Villagers, forestry officials, buyers and commune officials in Thma Bang district all say rosewood in the area is bought by "a company" that no one is able, or willing, to identify.
Chut Wutty alleges that company is Timber Green, a firm he says is paying villagers and workers employed for a separate project to cut rosewood in the CCPF.
"They always say they are clearing for hydropower, but they are not," he said.
"You can see it is a big amount. I think [what is happening] in the Cardamom Mountains, I've never seen as big as this."
Several sources have identified Timber Green as the logging company licensed to clear a reservoir area that will be created by the completion of the Stung Tatai dam on the Tatai river – about 30 km away from Russey Chrum village.
Construction of the 246-megawatt Stung Tatai Hydropower Dam by the firm China National Heavy Machinery started in January this year.
CI country director Seng Bunra said Timber Green had been employing villagers to cut logs within the dam area, but denied they had expanded logging into the forest area his organisation is tasked with protecting.
"This [company] in Thma bang district in Koh Kong…[they] only clear on the reservoir," he said.
He claims that a small number of individual workers had then gone on to illegally clear logs in the CCPF by themselves. However, the reaction of military officials to the photographing of illegal logs suggests a coordinated operation is being tightly controlled by a single company.
At 11.25pm on Sunday, five military personnel, two carrying assault rifles, stepped out of a Toyota Camry with no licence plates and surrounded two Post journalists who had just photographed a pick-up truck inside the CCPF that was packed with young rosewood.
They claimed it was illegal to take shots of the vehicles because they belonged to a private company.
After demanding the photographer clear one of his memory cards, the men returned and passed a mobile phone to Chut Wutty, who entered into a protracted and heated conservation with a man he says identified himself as the security chief of the company Timber Green.
When a Post reporter called the man's phone and asked if he was the security chief of Timber Green, the man asked "what's wrong?" and hung up when questioned further.
Timber Green is not publicly listed and could not be reached for comment.
Enforcement or endorsement?
Just outside of Russey Chrum village, five military police and forestry administration officials sat around a fire cooking tarot roots while waiting in ambush.
Forestry Administration ranger Sou Sophal says they were there to catch loggers, but not the trucks carrying tonnes of rosewood. Instead, they're going after individuals on motorbikes.
"All the trucks that transport timber are licensed," he said.
When asked which company was licensed to log in the area, Sou Sophal said: "I don't know the name of the company because I am under my superior, but I think it is licensed."
He added that ambushes were not even conducted at night – when the overwhelming majority of trucks carrying illegal timber in Thma Bang operate.
Sou Sophal's patrol group are part of a CI-coordinated protection program that incorporates the Forestry Administration and military police and was set up inside the CCPF in 2000 and officially recognised through a sub decree in 2002.
The anonymous researcher alleges that officials working with CI stationed at a checkpoint on road 48 – the only avenue out of Thma Bang – are allowing trucks carrying rosewood to drive straight through in exchange for "taxes".
"In practice they have turned a blind eye to illegal activity in the CCPF, allowing the FA and loggers to cover up and continue what is going on, for the sake of political convenience and expediency," the researcher said.
Two weeks ago, when the Post interviewed CI country director Sen Bunnra, he denied that any large-scale, coordinated logging was taking place in the CCPF.
"I think to me, it's not true, unless the government has allowed this company to clear," he said. "Normally, anywhere Conservation International works in the world, we always be very careful about the corruption, we also follow up if we suspect someone involved in the corruption."
Seng Bunra could not be reached for comment yesterday and a man answering the phone of CI regional director David Emmett hung up on a reporter before switching his phone off.
The anonymous researcher concedes CI is in a difficult position, acting against powerful individuals that have strong connections to a government intolerant of NGOs that are publicly critical, but questions at what point they become a self-defeating entity.
"It's a massive challenge and it's a fine balance, but international conservation NGOs should not be 'green washing' for the Cambodian government or the FA," the researcher said.
"One of the key issues here, which makes the case stand out from other forest areas in Cambodia, is that you have a big international NGO that is receiving funds from international donors to protect the forest."
Meas Chan, 42, the chief of nearby Pruch village, downplayed the scale of illegal logging in his area.
"When they [the company] come and want to buy [timber], if the organisation says the forest will be affected, we cannot do. But if they say it's not affected, we can do," he said.
Tip of the iceberg
Stung Tatai is not the only dam clearance project in the Cardamom mountains in which CI has been implicated in mass illegal logging operations.
In 2009, Ouk Kim San, a Forestry Administration official working for CI, was arrested after he was caught unloading tens of thousands of dollars worth of luxury timber at the Vietnamese border in Takeo province.
The timber haul was connected to a CI forest protection program near the Stung Atai dam, where the company MDS Import Export was licensed to clear timber from the reservoir area.
Contact details for MDS, which is owned by tycoon Try Pheap, could not be found.
Jeremy Ironside, a consultant with conservation group Flora and Fauna International who has worked in Pursat province's O'Som commune since 2002, said instead of doing their job, MDS had simply cut rosewood from surrounding protected forests.
"They came in on the pretense that they were going to clear the reservoir, but basically all they did was clear all the rosewood out of the forest. I didn't see any of the clearing of the reservoir," he said, adding it was not profitable for a company to clear dam sites.
Since then, he alleged, nothing had changed within the organisational culture of CI or the Forestry Administration.
"The close involvement of conservation organisations with resources extraction in that area is pretty astounding," he said. The anonymous researcher said between $40,000 and $80,000 worth of illegally cut timber was being trucked along four roads leading out of the CCPF from O'Som commune and Russey Chrum, Roleak Kang Cheung and Mongri villages, straight past CI checkpoints every day.
"If you come to Cambodia to do conservation, you might as well do conversation," the researcher said.