The ostensibly-outlawed export of logs to Vietnam increased in May, while the trade in sawn timber, also supposedly banned, remained substantial, new Vietnamese customs data shows.
According to the figures, obtained and released by US-based NGO Forest Trends, Vietnam received 9,329 cubic metres of logs from Cambodia in May, valued at $1.7 million and equalling an almost 50 percent increase in volume from the month before.
As for sawn timber, 18,691 cubic metres of Cambodian timber – valued at $12.7 million – were registered by Vietnamese customs authorities in May, down from the 21,670 cubic metres recorded for April.
While yet again contradicting a timber export ban announced by the government in January of 2016, the figures also appear to indicate that an explosive exposé in May by the Environmental Investigation Agency had “no impact” in denting the multi-million trade on the ground, said Forest Trends analyst Phuc Xuan To.
The May EIA report alleged Vietnamese-backed timber traders logged and smuggled more than 300,000 cubic metres of timber, mostly from Ratanakkiri province, between November and early April and paid vast bribes to officials on both sides of the border to facilitate the “systematic” operation.
In the wake of the revelations, Environment Minister Say Sam Al said the ministry was investigating local officials for involvement in timber smuggling.
However, in a message yesterday, he characterised the May EIA report as “politically motivated”, and said it had “a lot of questionable claims” meant to “tarnish and undermine my effort and the government”.
Asked whether the ministry had found any evidence to counter claims in the report, he replied, “it is confidential”.
Sam Al did not comment on the new Vietnamese customs data and the director of Cambodia’s General Department of Customs and Excise, Kun Nhem, declined to comment.
Reached yesterday, EIA senior campaigner Jago Wadley called the assertion of political motivation “preposterous”.
“Our report shows Cambodia’s resources are being stolen. Yes, there is corruption in Cambodia, undoubtedly, but that does not mean that we are somehow getting involved in politics,” he said. “Cambodia is a victim but the government is behaving like a perpetrator because they are not investigating the allegations.”
Veteran anti-logging activist Marcus Hardtke said the EIA report was “proved in every way”, and that the lack of official interest in investigating the case suggested “high-ranking” involvement. “What we have to assume is that this went all the way to Phnom Penh.”