Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on Monday called for the closure of 2.25 million hectares of natural forest in the country’s Central Highlands as well as the shuttering of wood processing facilities across the country, regional news outlets reported.
But while the move drew praise from some local environmentalists, what, if any, impact it might have on an illegal timber trade that has for years sent a steady flow of logs worth billions cross Cambodia’s eastern border, remains an open question.
“The impact to Cambodia could be negative or positive,” Bunra Seng, country director of Conservation International, said yesterday.
“Negative if the Vietnamese government just closes [the plants] in Vietnam but does not stop the imported timber from Cambodia or Laos at the border; positive if Vietnam is really transparent and strict in [monitoring] its import, export and processing.
“That [would be] great and lead to illegal logging in Cambodia and Laos decreasing sharply.”
Phuc Xuan To, a policy analyst for Forest Trends for Vietnam, saw little that was positive, however, saying the Vietnamese prime minister’s comments didn’t make sense given that a logging ban has technically existed in Vietnam since 2013.
Even the closing of the closing of the processing plants would not mean much for Cambodian logging, he insisted.
“Imports of wood from Cambodia [to Vietnam] are increasing, and 80 per cent of those imports are rosewood, which is exported to China,” he said. “There would be no impact.”
In January, Prime Minister Hun Sen called for a crackdown on illegal timber smuggling to Vietnam. Four months later, government officials announced that the trafficking of timber to the country had ceased completely, an assertion widely dismissed at the time by environmental activists working in the eastern border provinces.
Six weeks later, a visit by Post reporters showed a seemingly thriving ongoing trade, with local smugglers describing scores of trucks headed for the border, at times, they said, facilitated by police or military officials.
Still, some experts remain hopeful.
“The Cambodia government has already closed the timber trade to Vietnam, so it’s a very good time for Vietnam to close the factories,” said Chhith Sam Ath, country director for the World Wildlife Fund, expressing confidence in the government’s disputed claims about the crackdown’s efficacy.
Meanwhile, posts on the Ministry of Environment’s Facebook page yesterday said that patrols taking place on June 19 and 20 had confiscated 2.5 tonnes of wood, one chainsaw and one truck in the Phnom Oral Wildlife Sanctuary, and warned of people transporting wood out of the protected area.
Additional reporting by Mech Dara