The local people know their trees are disappearing, as Chris Fontaine reports,
but international agencies have plans at hand. The necessary first steps? Or merely
a pipe dream?
ANDONG MEAS DISTRICT, Ratanakiri - The village chief jabbed his finger toward the
northeast across the tranquil waters of the Se San River leading to Vietnam.
"The road begins 5km from here near my birthplace in Ket village. It will take
at least an hour and a half to get there, but once you reach the new road it is very
smooth for 30km to the border."
The Jarai hill tribe elder explained that the 'new' road is actually a section of
an old highway linking Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, presumably forgotten after Indochina's
wars. Now, instead of munitions flowing to communist armies in central and southern
Vietnam, thousands of cubic meters of timber trundle to the border on dusty Vietnamese
"The road was repaired very quickly," said the village chief, who declined
to give his name and asked for his village not be identified. "For this dry
season it will survive. But it won't last the rainy season because they know they
won't need it then."
The road exemplifies the intensity of this dry season's logging trade.
Extracting timber from this remote district of Ratanakiri via the province's main
border crossing, Route 19, would be a logistical nightmare - each felled log would
have to be trucked to the Se San, ferried across the river and then reloaded on another
truck that would have to navigate kilometers of tiny dirt roads before reaching Route
The road opens to loggers a whole new swathe of forest area north of the Se San.
But despite the freshly bulldozed track, raw timber from once-pristine rain forests
to the south of the river still moves east to the border on Route 19 at a rate that
has environmentalists sounding the alarm.
Keep it up, they say, and there will be nothing left to sell in five years - no money
for the national budget, no trees for the locals to build houses.
One knowledgeable source predicted that Cambodia will have to import wood for construction
within ten years.
The London-based environmentalists Global Witness has determined that more than 250,000
cubic meters of logs - which the group estimates to be worth $130 million - have
been exported from Ratanakiri to Vietnam so far this dry season, and another $73-216
million is estimated to be on the way.
In the provincial capital of Banlung, a local who said his brother worked with the
border police asserted that 300 Vietnamese trucks have been given permission to cross
into Cambodia to extract trees that have been felled over the past several months.
A trip along Route 19 adds credence to the source's claims. During one day on the
road - heavily gashed with trenches and potholes from the continuous heavy traffic
- at least 20 loads of timber could be seen heading toward Vietnam.
A restaurant owner in Bokeo town, about 20km east of Banlung, said at least 10 others
had passed by during the early morning hours.
About 30 more trucks sat empty at two loading points between the two towns, waiting
for more wood to be dragged out of the forests.
Although Cambodian military and border police are wary, the Vietnamese truckers and
loggers are not shy about the task at hand in Ratanakiri.
"The Cambodian and Vietnamese government have an agreement to export this wood
to build houses in Vietnam," one trucker said at a road-side shop. "We
have been hired because the Cambodians don't have the proper equipment."
A nationwide trade
The story is much the same in other eastern provinces, Global Witness reported
to the Post.
In Stung Treng, the group has been told that more than 60,000 cubic meters of logs
are stored at the Lao border.
More than 140,000 cubic meters of logs slated for export were documented in 1997,
and evidence has been uncovered that at least 80,000 cubic meters will cross the
border in 1998.
In Kratie, where nine companies have logging concessions, timber stockpiles totaling
278,667 cubic meters have been documented by Global Witness since May 1997. A reported
122,500 cubic meters are estimated to have crossed into Vietnam.
In Kampong Cham - where sawmills "consume a large amount of timber", according
to Global Witness - most of the high-grade timber in the province is already gone
but lower grades are still being felled.
The majority of Kampong Cham's logging is occurring in Stung Trang district, where
GAT International is reportedly felling 6,000 to 7,500 cubic meters of timber every
Pheapimex-Fuchan is transporting 600 cubic meters of logs per week from Stung Trang
to their mill in Kandal province.
One RCAF guard told Global Witness that "there are too many logs to count"
in Pheapimex-Fuchan's stockpile in Kampong Cham's forest.
In Prey Veng, where there are no logging concessions, the British environmentalists
report that "hundreds of cubic meters of processed wood are exported daily to
Vietnam" after numerous sawmills obtain timber from stockpiles in Kampong Thom,
Kratie and Kampong Cham.
Other sources report that the log trade in the west is equally wide-spread.
As much as 1 million cubic meters of processed and unprocessed wood will pass through
Koh Kong port this dry season, a knowledgeable source said, and logging in former
Khmer Rouge areas surrounding Pailin is continuing as usual.
Legal or Illegal?
Much of the exporting is technically illegal.
A December 1996 comprehensive timber export ban was modified in 1997 to allow only
the export of processed wood from legal concessions.
However, observers of the trade noted that the government and military has apparently
facilitated the trade in round logs.
"What's illegal in this country? There are no laws here," said one forestry
expert. "We thought that closing the border was the solution because it would
discourage loggers from spending the time and money to cut down trees.
"But there was no political will to keep the border closed, so it didn't work."
Global Witness has charged that military leaders, especially in military regions
1 and 2, quietly order the felling of trees - inside and outside of concession areas
- and later discover them as logs illegally cut by "anarchic loggers" or
old logs that were slated to be exported before the ban. Official requests are then
made to the Agriculture Ministry and the two prime ministers to export the logs.
"The RCAF are not just involved in logging, but are absolutely driving the trade,"
Global Witness' Patrick Alley told the Post.
"I can't offhand think of anywhere in the world where forests are being hit
so hard in so many places - and this is because the RCAF are everywhere and spend
most of their time logging. It seems to be their main job."
To back up their accusations, the environmentalists have revealed a "paper trail"
of documents following an Oct 1997 request by RCAF Chief of Staff Ke Kim Yan for
the collection and export of 27,000 cubic meters of "old felled logs... illegally
destroyed in Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri provinces".
The two prime ministers made an official request to Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan
Van Khai requesting authorization for a Vietnamese timber company to export the logs
"in order to make a good condition for Military Region 1 for supporting their
To verify who is "illegally destroying" the trees, one must merely ask
the rural residents of Ratanakiri.
A resident of the Tumpuon hill tribe village of Malik, 25km northeast of Banlung,
reported that Vietnamese and Cambodian soldiers have asked village leaders three
or four times this season to cut down trees in the surrounding forest.
The requests were repeatedly denied because of bad experiences with loggers the previous
"The people were cheated last year," the villager said. "Only the
provincial and district leaders got money. We didn't get anything."
After lodging complaints with the district authorities, a new school was built in
Malik. But the token gift did not satisfy the village elders enough to allow any
cutting this year.
"We have some good wood left, but most of it was taken last year."
The highlander said that three surrounding villages have cut deals with the soldiers,
mostly because the locals feel they have no real choice in the matter.
"In the other villages the soldiers came and said that Second Prime Minister
Hun Sen had given them permission to cut timber in the area," he said.
"I hope there will be no problems [in Malik], but we are so afraid they will
come and cut down all our trees. Then there will be nothing left for our children."
In Deun, a village 15km northwest of Banlung populated by the Kreung hill tribe,
a sense of hopelessness prevails after a run-in with soldiers and loggers.
The villagers successfully blocked the access road to the forest, the village chief
said, but because so many logging tracks have been bulldozed in the area, the logging
trucks simply took another route to the same forest.
The entire commune, made up of three villages, felt forced to make a deal with the
They have negotiated for a 3 million riels lump sum in exchange for virtually all
the good-quality hardwood trees left in the area plus another 1 million riels for
guides to lead loggers to the best areas.
Ratanakiri authorities and the Forestry Department are also less than thrilled about
the state of the timber industry in Ratanakiri, but both feel powerless to stop the
Forestry Director Or Soeurn said much of the illegal logging in Ratanakiri was the
result of the Indonesian Macro-Panin company not actively logging in its 350,000
hectare concession, which it has now lost to six other logging companies.
Macro-Panin did not pay the military to protect the area, so illegal loggers moved
"We cannot say who they are, but when they come to cut down the trees they have
guns," Or Soeurn said. "If we know they are from military regions 1 or
2, we do not hesitate to complain to the government."
However, he noted that the complaints the Forestry Department has filed have gotten
little response from the prime ministers.
Ratanakiri Governor Kep Chuk Tema was also reluctant to identify illegal loggers,
but he had no doubts over who was profiting from this year's export free-for-all.
"It is Military Region 1 who asks for authorization [to export timber],"
Chuk Tema said. "As a governor I have very little power. They distribute the
land without asking me."
Just like the hill tribes, the provincial leadership is given a small cut of the
Last year the governor's office received ten Toyota Landcruisers and approval for
$725,000 from the Finance Ministry to repair 1,500 km of roads in the province, build
seven new border posts and two buildings in Banlung for visiting physicians and professors.
Concerns and solutions
Whether deforestation and exports are legal or illegal, the concerns are the same.
Environmentalists, donors and human rights organizations want a forestry policy that
will allow for a sustainable timber industry that follows the rule of law and protects
If things remain the same, Global Witness has warned that Cambodia's forests will
become "a sand pit".
Phnom Penh-based experts said the warning is exaggerated, but not so far off the
"The loggers take the big stuff, then villagers come in with oxcarts to take
the column-sized trees [for local use] and then the little stuff is cut for charcoal,"
Another added: "Forests will be depleted but not destroyed. Ecological problems
will exist, but not as spectacular as some say... But commercially Cambodia could
suffer the most because a depleted forest cannot be harvested for maybe 50 years."
The future seems dire, but options exist. Community-based forestry - where locals,
who have used the land and its resources for generations, are given legal rights
to continue doing just that - is a concept that is widely proven, though as yet fledgling
The bigger-ticket option rests on four forestry projects currently being implemented
by the Royal Government, with the help of a World Bank loan that will become the
backbone of a new forestry policy.
An overall forestry policy study is being conducted by the US firm Associates in
Rural Development, expected to be completed by the end of May. The international
law firm White and Case is developing a standardized logging contract that should
be ready next month, unfortunately too late to be applied to the six new concessionaires
The longest project is a management program being developed by the Australian forestry
company FORTECH. The project due to be completed by the year's end, includes training
for Cambodian forestry officials who will work directly with logging companies.
One of FORTECH's goals is to teach the forestry officials the proper cutting techniques
that must be followed by loggers to ensure a sustainable industry, such as cutting
trees of specific diameters and only felling logs in 1/30 of a concession every year
to ensure proper regeneration of the entire area.
The most anticipated and controversial of the four projects is the independent logging
monitor and control project. The task at hand is to place monitors along Cambodia's
borders, rivers and coast to observe logging traffic.
The American firm Development Alternatives, Inc (DAI) is near completion on a feasibility
study to see what it will need to effectively implement the program.
Societé Générale de Surveillance had originally been awarded
the monitoring job, but the Swiss company pulled out of the deal last year because
it was not confident the job could be done effectively.
Although much hope and money has been placed into the new forestry policy, the prevailing
opinion is that without true political will by the government to implement it, current
logging practices will continue until the last commercially valuable tree is cut.
"This is good news," Chuk Tema said of the new forestry plan, "but
personally I am very pessimistic."