Illegal logging on a vast scale by Vietnamese loggers has stripped huge areas of protected forests in recent months, with fresh piles of felled timber and rutted logging routes in Ratanakkiri province flatly contradicting the government assurances the trade is over.
In January, even as Environment Minister Say Sam Al told reporters in Phnom Penh that large-scale logging was all but finished in Cambodia, loggers working for Vietnamese timber traders were cutting in Ratanakkiri’s protected areas in a “systematic” cross-border raid on the eastern Kingdom’s forests.
The Post’s investigations and information obtained in the past week, combined with evidence from forest monitors, villagers in the area and new customs data, show evidence of illegal logging on a huge scale. In an interview yesterday, however, Sam Al disputed the extent of the felling, saying it was just locals harvesting timber.
The reality of the large-scale operations include at least three timber collection camps set on the O’Tang River and hundreds of truckloads of valuable logs, which were driven across several unofficial crossings into Vietnam, according to activists who have been documenting the trade.
Seven Vietnamese nationals and two Cambodians were arrested and charged in Lumphat district in late March over illegal logging.
But ethnic minority villagers in the district last week described seeing more than a hundred Cambodian and Vietnamese loggers transporting timber out in some areas of the forest. Some villagers admitted they had been paid to allow their community forests to be felled over the dry season.
Cambodian authorities have maintained that large-scale logging ceased last year after a crackdown and announcement of an export ban of timber to Vietnam in January 2016.
Vietnamese news sites last month, however, reported that 16 enterprises in Vietnam’s Gia Lai province were given permits until May 30 to import at least 300,000 cubic metres of timber from Cambodia.
The permits made Gia Lai “one of the largest importers of timber in the country”, states one article, which specifies they cover timber from all categories, including rare species.
Another article said the arrangement had led to a “mushrooming” of timber transportation from the Cambodian border through Chu Prong and Duc Co districts, adjacent to Ratanakkiri.
To put the Vietnamese import quota in perspective, in 1996 a study by the World Bank, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and the UN Development Programme – commissioned by the Cambodian government – recommended limiting forest exploitation to a maximum 300,000 to 350,000 cubic metres per year for the entire country.
Since then, Cambodia has lost at least 1.75 million hectares of tree cover, according to satellite data analysed by the World Resources Institute’s Global Forest covering 2001 to 2015.
It’s unclear whether the figure cited by the Vietnamese press has been fully realised, but newly obtained Vietnamese customs data attest to a surge in timber flow from Cambodia since November, a period of intensive logging corroborated by villagers in the province.
Collected by US NGO Forest Trends, the raw figures show 73,623 cubic metres of unprocessed logs – which have been illegal to export for two decades – made their way to Vietnam in January and February this year.
The amount is an almost 200 percent increase on the same months in 2016 and was valued at $13.3 million.
Customs data for 2016 reported by The Post last month, meanwhile, show Vietnam received more than 78,847 cubic metres of Cambodian unprocessed timber in November and December, more than half the year’s total of logs.
The new figures also show that sawn-wood exports to Vietnam have remained steady in the first two months of the year at about 56,000 cubic metres valued at more than $40 million.
A large-scale clearing
According to Marcus Hardtke, a long-time anti-logging activist who has been monitoring the dry season spike, significant logging overseen by a combination of Vietnamese and Cambodian managers took place in O’Yadav National Park, Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary, Virachey National Park and Sre Pok Wildlife Sanctuary.
“A logging operation of that magnitude would easily cover several thousand hectares,” Hardtke said. “They are going for the highest value timber and the largest for volume so they are stripping these protected areas systematically.”
The Post has seen several photos of timber trucks hauling dozens of logs in convoys through Lumphat sanctuary’s dry forest. On a trip through the sanctuary last week, scores if not hundreds of felled logs, including valuable species such as sokrom, ch’teal and phchek, lay littered in the forest next to logging roads warped and pitted by heavy trucks.
One hotspot of logging activity was an isolated settlement in the sanctuary named O’Lab, where some 20 rickety wooden shelters dot cleared fields on the edge of a riverbank.
Speaking from the village, Vav Romeas, an ethnic Tumpuon farmer, said that the operation was big.
“They started about four months ago and stopped transporting before Khmer New Year,” Romeas said. “There were a hundred Vietnamese and some Khmer workers cutting down trees. They had about 15 bulldozers and cleared a lot of roads. In one night there were 10 to 20 timber trucks past my house.”
O’Lab village elder Rochorm Daeng, 72, said logging in the area stopped prior to Khmer New Year following a raid by Military Police at the end of March, which resulted in the arrest of seven Vietnamese nationals and two Cambodians who were providing transport.
The Cambodian men arrested include driver Thivn Noura, a nephew of the Seda commune chief, and his assistant, Dik Til.
Reached yesterday, Provincial Deputy Police Chief Chea Bunthoeun said the Vietnamese nationals and Cambodians remained in pre-trial detention. He said he had no information about mass logging in the area.
According the pair’s employer Sien Chahien, a Tompuon endiginous villager from Seda commune, the duo were hired for $100 to take the Vietnamese into a forest area called O’Kreng to fell wood.
“The Vietnamese employer said he had bought the forest for timber and wanted to transport his employees there,” Chahien said. “We were employed to transport them to the forest, but not transporting any timber. There was no piece of timber on my truck.”
Reached yesterday, Ratanakkiri Provincial Military Police Commander Kim Reaksmey played down the scale of illegal logging in his province, though he said his forces had seized 900 logs in recent weeks. “We are working hard to crackdown on the crimes. We did not even break during the Khmer New Year,” he said, before declining to answer further questions.
The arrests and seizures in Ratanakkiri followed revelations by Cambodian authorities they were investigating allegations of collusion between Vietnamese loggers and more than a dozen police, army and military police officials in Mondulkiri province, who are alleged to have taken some $170,000 in bribes to facilitate illegal exports to the Kingdom’s eastern neighbour.
Goldman Environmental Prize-winning anti-logging activist Ouch Leng, who has also been looking into the dry season spike in the east, said the Mondulkiri case was “small” compared to the logging in Ratanakkiri. He said his team had tracked timber trucks loaded with wood cut in protected areas from at least three camps in Cambodia to unofficial crossings from Ratanakkiri into Vietnam.
“There were at least 200 trucks per day. One truck is about $10,000, so it’s $2 million per day. It’s very easy to make money,” said Leng, attributing the information to interviews with those involved in the trade.
“This is organised illegal logging and a systematic collusion of the timber trade across the border to Vietnam before the general election. This is lawless, no one is controlling it,” he said, giving voice to the assumption that logging on that scale could not occur without top-level government acquiescence.
“The commitment of the government to protect the forests was not true; their crackdown was nothing more than propaganda.”
Last year the Ministry of Environment took over jurisdiction of all protected areas, with some previously under the purview of the Forestry Administration.
Reached yesterday, Environment Minister Say Sam Al disputed the illegal logging in Ratanakkiri’s protected areas was on a large scale.
He conceded that logging continued in the province but said the operations were “small and scattered” and were attributable to local residents felling and selling trees for cash.
“I don’t think it is large scale, if you look at the NASA data it will show that the rate that we lose our forest has decreased a lot, which indicates that the illegal activity has decreased.”
“I’m not denying [and saying] it’s watertight; there is still leakage.”
According to interviews in Samut Krom village, situated on the northern tip of Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary, residents did in a sense sell trees for cash, though they did not cut them themselves.
Several members of the village said that in January they received about $25 per family from their village chief to allow loggers from Vietnam to strip wood from their community forest, which is inside the protected area.
“It wasn’t to sell the forest, just the wood,” said Wang Noeut, 47, an ethnic Tumpuon villager. “If we don’t take the money they cut the trees anyway. They cut and pay later, if we do not take, [we] get nothing.”
The Post was unable to reach the village chief of Samut Krom.
Noeut’s son Wang Ten, who has a small timber business selling to the local market, said he saw “hundreds” of Vietnamese loggers working with Cambodian labourers filling between 10 and 20 trucks, while in the forest in February.
“At one station there were about 20 to 30 people and about 10 to 20 trucks. They go into the jungle and transport the timber back to Vietnam,” he said.
Ten said villagers in nearby Samut Leu village had also been paid off for their community forest. The community leader of that village, Tuy Nheb, said an offer of $25,000 had been made by three Vietnamese men who arrived on January 9 but denied it had been taken.
Nheb said the money given to Samut Krom, via their village chief, was the same amount.
While acknowledging villagers had been paid off, Samut Leu Deputy Village Chief Tun Nhek, however, said Vietnamese nationals had given the money to the community leaders and not to local authorities.
“I heard the [money] was more than $20,000,” he said.
“I saw up to 20 Vietnamese loggers at certain times. They paid 15,000 riel [$3.75] per cubic metre and a single tree is usually over 2 cubic metres”
Leng, the activist, said villagers were bought off because they posed the biggest threats to logging operations, alleging the authorities meant to stop the practice were colluding with loggers. Hardtke agreed.
“An operation on that scale cannot be conducted without the knowledge or collusion of the provincial authorities or even the national authorities,” he said.
“Reports suggest that a range of military personnel, border police and environmental rangers are participating in this operation. It is impossible to keep this secret over a whole dry season.”