At dawn on the Dangrek Mountain range, 62-year-old logger Suon Song* uses an empty beer can to boil water for his morning coffee. He’ll need it to stay alert during the illegal and dangerous work ahead, after the first of several sleepless nights in the densely forested terrain that forms a natural border between Cambodia and Thailand.
Since Song and his two companions began felling trees in the forest in 2001, they have faced countless encounters with the black-clad Thai soldiers that patrol the area, many of which have featured gunfire. One has been shot and survived.
The three neighbours, originally from Prey Veng province and now living in Oddar Meanchey, are among what they estimate to be 1,000 Cambodians who risk their lives each year crossing the border in search of endangered Siamese rosewood and other luxury wood.
Last year, according to the Ministry of Interior, 69 Cambodians were shot dead while illegally crossing the Thai border. In March this year, 12 were said to have been killed in a single day.
“No one wants to risk their lives like this – if we could earn a living by any other means, we would,” says Song.
These two- or three-day trips, which the group makes together many times a month, begin with uncertainty. A Post Weekend reporter accompanied them for the first night of the trip, as they ventured out into the mountains.
Ahead of the journey, as Suon Sokunthea* packs her things (rice, rice pot, dried fish and other necessities) into a small bag, she doesn’t know whether she will be in Thailand or Cambodia that afternoon.
“It depends on the wood,” the thirtysomething mother says. “If we spot the trees in our territories, we will do it there, but if we find nothing, we will make up our minds to risk life and limb finding rosewood in Thailand.”
While many of the Oddar Meanchey villagers in this line of work collaborate with middlemen who work with soldiers on checkpoints along the border, she, Song and Suong Sothea*, another neighbour, work independently so as to save the money.
The officers, Sokunthea explains, buy the timber from the middlemen and allow the villagers safe passage, indicating where the best wood is to be found. But the group sets off without a clear destination.
“Crossing the border is our last choice, and our lives are at risk, but we do not want to come home empty-handed,” she explains. “We want to come back with some money, whether it is a lot or a little, because our children waiting at home need food to eat.”
The foot of the mountain range lies about 5 kilometres from the village, and the group travels by road. Once there, Song stashes his motorbike in the undergrowth. The life of a logger is risky, he says – he has to be wary all the time.
It’s a four-hour trek through the forest to the summit, which is divided between Cambodia and Thailand and is home to most of the luxury wood. There are a handful of checkpoints, but mostly it’s unclear which part of the forest belongs to which country, meaning they never know when soldiers might appear.
To ensure their safety, the group sticks to hard and fast rules. While they carry chainsaws, trees are felled by hand when the group believes they are in Thai territory, to avoid attracting the attention of the soldiers.
The actual logging is only done under cover of darkness – daytime is reserved for finding the wood.
“We take turns to watch every direction when we are busy cutting… Whenever one of us sees something strange, we drop all our things and run for our lives,” says Song. “Sometimes we run away from our own shadows.”
Trudging through the forest, Song wishes the rains would come. That’s the safest time of day – when the Thai soldiers won’t come out to patrol.
“We never think about being cold,” he explains. “What we want is the quickest way to transport the wood back to Cambodia, so we can live for another day.”
Of the three in this party, fifty-something Sothea has come closest to being killed. Her leg bears the scars of a bullet wound.
In the past, Sokunthea has discovered the bodies of Cambodians shot by soldiers. Most of those who die are new to the trade, she says, and are not familiar enough with the terrain to know where is best to run away.
But, this time, the group makes a happier discovery among the undergrowth: an agarwood stump, and two tnong trees.
After rosewood, the tnong tree is the most lucrative find. These stumps are likely the handiwork of loggers working with Thai and Cambodian soldiers, the group believes.
It will take two days to dig them out: a laborious process.
Each villager can carry between 60kg to 70kg, which they can sell for $70 or $80 in the village.
But the return from the mountain will be fraught. Once they have hauled the wood to the foot, the group is usually confronted by soldiers, who demand bribes. If the loggers try to escape, the timber will be seized.
The loggers lose about 70 per cent of their potential earnings this way. If the wood is worth $100, the workers will take home about $30.
“We are faced with many difficulties, and sometimes we cannot eat rice for two days – but the bosses earn a lot of profit,” says Song.
Touch Ra, deputy director of the Chaom-Sa Ngaom border checkpoint in Oddar Meanchey province, acknowledges that Cambodian soldiers facilitate and in some cases drive the illegal logging trade in the province.
Measures to stop people from crossing the border are not perfect, because the soldiers urge them to continue, he said.
“It is true that some soldiers have been involved in the crime, but I do not know which ones yet,” said Ra.
Once in the hands of the middlemen, the wood then makes its way to China, where the desire for faux antique furniture has left a “bloody trail of death, violence and corruption in its wake”, according to a May report by global NGO the Environmental Investigation Agency.
As a result, the Chinese government bears some responsibility for the loss of life that occurs in the procurement of wood, said Ouch Leng, director of the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force.
“The soldiers along the border receive the advantages from those villagers who risk their lives, so the responsibility for the shooting of Cambodian people who cross the border lies with the Chinese government, since China buys the luxury timber,” Leng said.
In an order on the prevention and crackdown on logging dated February 22, 2013, Prime Minister Hun Sen said: “If there is a border crossing involved, the commander of the unit which is standing at that point has to be responsible to the government.”
Back at the summit of the mountains, it all seems unfair to the three loggers.
The villagers in their poverty-ridden district have limited employment alternatives, and even this dangerous job barely feeds their families, says Sothea.
“I have done this job for years and have saved nothing to show for it, only this scar from the Thai soldiers - but I am lucky that I didn’t die.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.