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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Timber sales to Vietnam trebled in 2014, finds report

Sawn wood extracted from an economic land concession in Ratanakkiri province
Sawn wood extracted from an economic land concession in Ratanakkiri province. Heng Chivoan

Timber sales to Vietnam trebled in 2014, finds report

Timber exports from Cambodia to Vietnam more than tripled in 2014 compared with the year before, despite ongoing negotiations to curb the trade, according to a new report.

The total amount of sawn wood exported to Vietnam from Cambodia was 153,547 cubic metres in 2014, compared with 51,125 cubic metres in 2013, according to past data and a draft report from Forest Trends, a US-based NGO.

Phuc Xuan To, a co-author of the report, said he found on a recent border trip that most of the timber imported from Cambodia to Vietnam was illegal.

“Vietnamese traders go directly to Cambodia and buy illegal timber from Cambodian loggers,” he said.

The value of the wood was $256 million in 2014, compared to $45 million in 2013, although value figures are routinely underestimated to avoid import taxes.

The report stated that all the sawn wood imported from Cambodia and Laos had very high market value, as most of it was rosewood or other luxury timber.

A Post investigation last year revealed that one of Cambodia’s largest tycoons, Try Pheap – who has strong ties to Vietnamese companies – made more than $220 million in profit by illegally logging rosewood over a three-year period.

The Vietnamese timber processing industry, which depends on imports, exported $6.23 billion of wood-based products in 2014.

The import of Cambodian and Lao timber has raised concerns from some in Vietnam’s wood processing industry that it would affect their exports to environmentally sensitive markets such as the US and Europe.

The Handicraft and Wood Industry Association of Ho Chi Minh City, for example, is discussing including an outright ban of Cambodian and Lao timber in its members’ code of conduct.

Meanwhile, the Vietnamese government has been negotiating with the European Union since 2010 to sign a voluntary partnership agreement (VPA) under the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) scheme, which would put the country on the road to ensuring that all timber exported to the EU is legal in origin.

But the massive increase in cross-border timber exports seems to put into question Vietnam’s ability to successfully implement the project. “There exists a huge gap between what has been discussed under FLEGT VPA and what has happened on the ground,” said Xuan To.

According to Jago Wadley, senior investigator at the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency, the European Commission has made it clear that no VPA will be signed if timber imports to Vietnam are not screened by a reliable timber legality assurance system (TLAS.)

“However, Vietnam has not to date developed a TLAS that could credibly screen illegal timber imports – despite numerous draft TLASs having been produced,” he said.

Cambodian opposition parliamentarian Son Chhay said Cambodian timber has been logged and sent to Vietnam illegally for “decades”, with Vietnam acting as the lucrative middleman between Cambodia and overseas markets like China and the EU.

“We cannot have all the forests be cut down and destroyed, while at the same time the [Cambodian] government gets very little money from the revenue,” Chhay said.

FERN, a Dutch group that keeps track of the EU’s forest commitments worldwide, said Vietnam “will only become a VPA signatory once concerns about the legality of timber entering Vietnam from Cambodia or Laos is addressed”.

While Vietnam continues negotiations, the EU invited Cambodia in February of this year to enter discussions to eventually sign a VPA.

No official response has been made by the Cambodian government yet, which Chhay attributed to politicians’ interest in “pocket money” over the environment.

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