Timber stockpiles in two former Mondulkiri economic land concessions went up in flames over the past few days, with authorities blaming forest fires, an explanation one observer characterised as an “excuse”.
The ELCs had their licences withdrawn in 2014 for breaching their operating conditions. One formerly belonged to Kasekam Khmer Angkor Agriculture and the other, to Investment & Development Dai Nam (Cambodia). Since then, tycoons Try Pheap and Lim Bunna have been granted the right to collect wood at the two sites, according to the Ministry of Environment.
The fires follow the burning of a timber cache last week on the land of Vietnamese company Binh Phuoc I. According to Mondulkiri military police commander Sak Saraing, the Binh Phuoc I fire may have been set deliberately, but the latest two fires were an act of nature. “No one set fire to it; it was caused by the forest fire. It is the windy season and the fire spread to the timber pile,” he said.
The commander could not estimate the amount of timber burned. He said that he and his forces spent all of yesterday trying to put out the fire and keep it from spreading.
But Sok Rotha, the Mondulkiri provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, regarded the commander’s explanation as “an excuse aiming to take no responsibility”.
“It’s too much of a coincidence,” he said. “A forest fire would not spread to the timber pile, because they are very careful and security is strict . . . It is impossible.”
Despite the ELCs’ licence revocation, timber continued to be gathered at both sites, according to Rotha.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights on Tuesday sent a letter to Environment Minister Say Samal, asking him to explain why the two ELCs were “reallocated” to Try Pheap and Lim Bunna in violation of the May, 2012, moratorium on ELCs in the Kingdom.
“I want to ask the Ministry of Environment to kindly explain the offer of land concession,” wrote Chak Sopheap, CCHR executive director. “If it is not a new economic land concession offer, please offer information about the rights of [Pheap’s and Bunna’s] companies and guarantee that there is no new logging.”
Sao Sopheap, spokesman for the ministry, denied that the tycoons got any new land concessions, and said that they are legally allowed to pick up leftover timber at both sites.
“Timber is rampantly piled over there and the ministry allowed the two companies to collect the forestry products for checking over and paying tax to the government,” he said.