Six prominent conservation groups yesterday vowed to help a military police task force fight illegal logging near the eastern border yesterday. However, scepticism persists that the highly publicised operation, which has resulted in few arrests, is merely for show.
Leaders from Wildlife Alliance, WWF-Cambodia, Wildlife Conservation Society, Conservation International, Fauna & Flora International and Birdlife International met with military police chief Sao Sokha, the leader of the anti-logging task force created last month by Prime Minister Hun Sen, at national military police headquarters in Phnom Penh yesterday morning.
The NGOs, which had requested the meet, agreed to provide information about illegal logging in the protected areas they help patrol with local authorities.
Sokha yesterday appointed senior official Hong Vinol, head of the military police’s information and security department, to act as liaison between the task force and the NGOs.
“The six NGOs assured the Chairman that they will provide information as requested on illegal logging to assist the committee in its further investigations,” a press release issued by the NGOs said.
Meanwhile, in the latest development from the crackdown, Mondulkiri military police chief Sak Sarang said the anti-logging task force had inspected 860 cubic metres of timber at the Unigreen land concession in Koh Nhek district and almost 4,000 cubic metres on the Binh Phuoc concession in Keo Seima district.
Last week, local journalist Van Tith was detained and questioned by Sarang for alleging in a TV report that the commander was himself a timber trader for Binh Phuoc, allegations strongly denied by Sarang but which multiple local officials and activists said they believed to be true.
Sarang declined to provide further details of the investigation, as did military police spokesman Eng Hy, explaining that authorities were still measuring timber and sending reports to prosecutors.
“There are companies and people involved that will be sent to court,” he said.
The case of Sarang’s alleged relationship with Binh Phuoc is emblematic of the criticisms that have dogged the anti-logging campaign since its beginning.
Sao Sokha himself was accused of profiting from illegal logging in the 2000s, while prominent tycoon Try Pheap, who has long been accused of laying waste to vast stretches of forest, holds the legal right to collect any timber seized by authorities.
Given that only a handful of lower-level arrests have occurred so far, some observers have suggested that the campaign might be more focused on centralising the lucrative industry rather than eliminating it.
That could put the six NGOs that pledged to support the task force in a tight spot.
Ross Sinclair, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Cambodia program, acknowledged the criticisms – but said that NGOs were taking the campaign “on face value”.
According to Sinclair, the campaign has produced concrete results in the field, leading to a “noticeable decrease” in timber smuggling and other illegal activities in the forest.
“Nothing would be served at this early stage to not [participate],” he said.
WWF Cambodia country director Chhith Sam Ath also defended cooperation with the task force.
“So far, we have seen that after the prakas was issued [by the prime minister], that illegal logging has gone down,” he said.
But Ouch Leng, director of the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force, said the mystery shrouding the committee’s activities remained suspect.
“They keep saying they’re investigating, but there are never any results of the investigation,” he said.
“If all the okhnas [a government-granted honorific held by some wealthy businessmen] and companies have legitimate licenses, the committee should show these publicly . . . if they do not, it shows they are working secretly with the okhnas.”