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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Numbers don’t add up

Numbers don’t add up

The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has released a nine-month status report on 2013’s illegal timber seizures, saying it had confiscated, among other things, more than 2,000 kilograms of rosewood – a figure that represents only a tiny fraction of seizures reported by the Post this year.

The report, dated November 7 and signed by Agriculture Minister Ouk Rabun, says that in the first nine months of 2013, the MAFF dealt with 1,047 cases of forestry-related crimes, seizing more than 3,400 cubic metres of assorted illegal timber, and a further 106 cubic metres and 2,400 kilograms of rosewood specifically.

“The revenue from the forest is a total of [about $10.9 million], of which the income from selling and renting properties [concessions] and services is [about $8.9 million], and income from fines for forest crimes is [about $2 million],” the report adds.

Despite the seemingly impressive figures, however, previously reported busts dwarf those included in the MAFF’s update. One Forestry Administration raid in September, for example, netted some 21 tonnes – itself nearly 10 times the amount recorded in the MAFF’s report.

When asked about the discrepancy, Rabun declined to comment. Tim Siphan, a director of the MAFF’s Legislation and Law Enforcement Department, also declined to comment, saying he was “busy”.

Thorn Sarath, an official with the MAFF’s Administration Department, declined to comment on the discrepancy in figures. But he maintained that while his ministry had no compunction about arresting those who committed forest crimes, it had no jurisdiction over concessionaires with legal rights to cull trees from property already considered degraded.

“We crack down regardless of whether it is small- or large-scale, but the companies have legal documents,” he said.

Ouch Leng, head of the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force, said that the more than 1,000 cases and thousands of cubic metres of luxury timber referenced by the MAFF should have resulted in much more government revenue than the $2 million noted in the report, suggesting that some proceeds from logs had been siphoned off into officials’ pockets.

What’s more, he added, leaving out concessionaires meant ignoring the lion’s share of the problem.

“Deforestation is not carried out by normal business people, but by the economic land concessionaires, so the government should take legal measures against all those companies and not just crack down on the normal business people,” he said.

A report from the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force released on Tuesday accuses tycoon Try Pheap of not only holding nearly seven times the legal amount of economic land concessions but also of using his massive holdings to facilitate an enormous cross-border timber smuggling operation.

The MAFF’s report comes just under nine months after Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a circular calling on officials to step up their efforts to combat the rosewood trade. Observers at the time said the measure was too little, too late.

Of at least 14 timber busts reported by the Post since the circular, only two have yielded actual arrests. The MAFF report, while noting that arrests had been made, offered no specific figures on how many.

Chhim Savuth, a senior investigator for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said yesterday that authorities remained reluctant to come down on major smugglers of rosewood – focusing instead on small-timers – and were happy to let others go in exchange for a cut.

“The fact is, that when they crack down, it’s because [smugglers] do not agree to pay the authorities, and it is a cover-up of what is happening,” he said.

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