Hundreds of logs of timber, including luxury wood, as well as sawmill camps were torched at a controversial Vietnamese-owned economic land concession in Mondulkiri province’s Keo Seima district in an apparent bid to destroy evidence of illegal logging ahead of a raid by a new anti-logging committee.
Eng Hy, spokesman for the joint committee – formed by Prime Minister Hun Sen on January 14 to crack down on illegal logging and timber smuggling to Vietnam – said the team was investigating after inspectors found charred logs at the rubber concession of Binh Phuoc Kratie Rubber 1, a subsidiary of the Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG).
“The burning down of timber did happen … Whether it was to destroy evidence or not, it is a crime,” Hy said, adding he had yet to receive a report from his men on the ground and could not talk in detail about the case.
“If it is the case that they tried to destroy evidence, we can use both the Forestry Law and the Criminal Code [to prosecute] but we do not know yet who set the fire.”
According to nearby residents of Sre Chhouk commune, which is home to mostly ethnic Phnong villagers locked in a long-running land dispute with the company, the burning of timber at the 5100-hectare concession started last week, though smoke from fires could still be seen yesterday night.
“They burned on the land of Binh Phuoc 1 a few days ago; when they could not hide [the wood] in time, they burned it,” said a 32-year-old Phnong villager, who declined to be named as residents had allegedly been threatened by the company, which could not be reached yesterday.
The stockpiles included luxury wood such as beng and thnong, which, for logs of larger diameter, can fetch up to $4,000 per cubic metre if sold across the Vietnamese border, according to an NGO Forum report.
Sok Rotha, Mondulkiri provincial coordinator for the rights group Adhoc, said several different stockpiles were set alight prior to the committee’s arrival.
“Hundreds of pieces of timber were burnt,” Rotha said, calling it an brazen attempt to conceal illegal logging that showed timber barons were “not afraid” of the government’s renewed push against the trade.
“The community network was banned from entering the sites where timber stockpiles were burned, they were strictly guarded. It is impossible that an outsider could have set the fire. It may have been the owner who burned the timber.”
Nearby communities have long accused the company of using its concession to launder illegal wood felled outside its boundaries and say wealthy businessman Seong Sam Ol – who along with tycoon Lim Bunna, has been named by the government as the crackdown’s prime target – is the timber’s buyer.
Yesterday, another community member, 38, said much of the timber held at the site came from outside the ELC, and included many resin trees logged from his community.
“I witnessed fires at three locations with over 60 pieces; each stockpile had between 20 and 30 logs, which belonged to Oknha Ol,” he said, referring to Sam Ol by an honorific title reserved for businessmen who donate more than $100,000 to the government. “They set fire to it themselves. They wanted to damage the evidence.”
Sam Ol could not be reached yesterday.
A 2013 report by the NGO Forum investigating logging in Keo Seima district, also connected to Binh Phuoc, described Sam Ol as a “powerful timber trader” who bought timber from the company and once led a group of armed guards to recover chainsaws seized from loggers by local villagers.
Hak Sophan, administrative director of Mondulkiri Provincial Hall, yesterday declined to comment on the case.
The 10-member committee, which is led by military police commander Sao Sokha, who has been accused of involvement with illegal logging in the past, has overseen raids at several concessions and timber warehouses in the past 10 days.