Cambodian and Vietnamese officials have received millions of dollars in bribes from Vietnamese timber traders as part of a cross-border “conspiracy” to log vast swathes of Ratanakkiri province and funnel the timber to Vietnam, according to a damning report by the Environmental Investigation Agency released today.
The report, titled Repeat Offender: Vietnam’s Persistent Trade in Illegal Timber, reveals further details of a systematic large-scale logging operation permitted and supported by authorities in Vietnam’s Gia Lai province to strip more than 300,000 cubic metres of commercial timber from protected forests in the Kingdom’s east, an operation first reported by The Post last week.
Through interviews with timber traders, official documents and field work in Cambodia and Vietnam, EIA details how the large-scale timber harvest was arranged in Vietnam and carried out in Ratanakkiri’s Virachey and O’Yadav national parks, and Lumphat and Srepok wildlife sanctuaries.
At a rate of 100 trucks a day during December and January, timber was smuggled across unofficial border crossings to seven major lumberyards near Vietnam’s official border gate with Cambodia’s O’Yadav district. The wood was then “legitimised”, with Vietnamese authorities marking, registering and taxing the illegally felled logs before sending them on to wood processing factories, investigators found.
Cambodia ostensibly banned exports to Vietnam during a timber crackdown in January last year and officials, including Environment Minister Say Sam Al, have repeatedly maintained that illegal logging in the province is small-scale, scattered and driven by poor residents.
But in reality, 16 Vietnamese companies – given import quotas of up to 60,000 cubic metres each by Vietnamese provincial authorities on September 30 – ran “well orchestrated” operations in Cambodia, with some farming out their allocation to independent smugglers.
One large firm, Nguyen Trung Company, was awarded a 20,000-cubic-metre import quota, while its owner also ran another side firm Son Dong Company that was awarded 15,000 cubic metres.
An accountant for Son Dong named Le Quoc Trung told EIA investigators that Cambodia’s ban was easily flouted. “Regardless of the agreement of [a] timber export ban between Vietnam and Cambodia, Vietnam still stealthily import[s],” he said, according to the report.
“The MoIT [Ministry of Industry and Trade] still allows some provinces to import timber from Cambodia.” To facilitate the trade, bribes were dispensed on both sides of the border, traders told EIA.
On the Vietnamese side, traders paid kickbacks totalling up to $45 per cubic metre to the chairman of the Gia Lai Provincial People’s Committee, customs officials and border soldiers to receive permission to import the timber, amounting to more than $13 million dollars, the report alleges.
In Cambodia, meanwhile, the trade was “enabled by corrupt Cambodian officials and security force personnel in the pay of Vietnamese timber traders”. Those officials received payoffs to “open up logging areas and smuggling routes in Cambodia”, the report states.
Mr Phong, a Vietnamese logistics agent involved in shipping logs from Laos and Cambodia for the Hung Anh Company, told undercover EIA investigators that paying off Cambodian officials was pricey.
“The under the table money to the Cambodian side to get the permit to exploit in a forest area is a big amount,” he told EIA.
“They still need to give money in order to be allowed to exploit in an area with big trees, high value timbers. For example, they will have to give 1-2 million USD.”
Phan Yen Vui, another timber trader speaking to EIA investigators in Pleiku, a wood processing hub in Gia Lai province, said the timber supplies from Cambodia were unrestricted because of corruption.
She explained that every year her timber network would “lobby” a senior official at the Ratanakkiri border station with cash payments for permission to cut timber.
The official would then tip off loggers if high-level inspections were due, she said.
As reported by The Post last week, Vietnamese traders also paid villagers living around Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary in order to log their community forests, which are recognised as Community Protected Areas by the Forestry Administration.
According to the EIA report, Ratanakkiri Governor Thong Savon in December organised a ceremony for ethnic villagers involving beer and buffalo meat to mark the “logging deal” in the community.
At the ceremony, according to the report, “local residents were offered $5 per cubic metre to carry out the logging, with chainsaws, fuel and food provided by Vietnamese managers and protection guaranteed from any enforcement actions”.
“Soon afterwards, hundreds of Cambodian and Vietnamese loggers started felling in the area.” Contacted yesterday, Savon said he was busy and declined to comment.
A major impetus of the “looting”, the report notes, was the successful enforcement last year of a timber export ban in Laos, previously the biggest supplier to Vietnam’s wood processing sector, expected to export $8 billion in goods this year.
Short on supply, Vietnam traders “abetted by Government policies and support” switched their attention back to Cambodia, resuming large-scale cross-border trade on levels not seen since the 1990s, the authors state.
On September 30, 2016, the Gia Lai Provincial People’s Committee issued quotas for 16 Vietnamese companies to import more than 300,000 cubic metres of timber, which are valid until May 30 this year.
This policy, says EIA, was made possible by Vietnam’s Ministry of Industry and Trade and followed earlier regulatory shifts in 2014, which scrapped the need for import documents for timber from Cambodia.
Gia Lai authorities also created inter-agency inspection teams to ensure no wood was logged from Vietnam, which has been trying to preserve its own natural resources.
During an interview yesterday, EIA senior forests campaigner Jago Wadley said that the operation was nothing short of transnational organised timber crime.
“There is clearly a conspiracy between elements of the Vietnamese state and timber smugglers to legalise timber brazenly stolen from Cambodia and enrich both the individuals involved [and] also the Vietnamese economy and state revenues,” Wadley said.
“That conspiracy has empowered and emboldened Vietnamese timber smugglers to invest millions of dollars in bribery and timber payments – cash injections that appear to have swept aside the rule of law in Cambodia.”
Minister of Environment Say Sam Al yesterday declined to comment, saying the ministry was still going over the report.
Ratanakkiri Provincial Police Chief Nguon Koeun rejected the report’s findings. “There is no such story,” he said. “If they have story and circulate it, it is their story. We do not need to investigate it because our forces patrol every day at the border”
Ratanakkiri Provincial Hall spokesman Nhem Sam Oeun also dismissed the report.“We don’t allow people to log whatsoever,” he said.
“There can be small logs transported on buses in secret that we don’t know about at night, but it can’t be up to [300,000] cubic metres.”
The report’s release comes as Vietnam and the European Union prepare to move forward with a Voluntary Partnership Agreement as part of Europe’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan.
The trade agreement is aimed to ensure timber and timber products exported to the EU come from legal sources.
EIA investigators also found evidence of mass logging with protection by Cambodian military police in the O’Tabok Community Protected Area in Virachey National Park, among five such areas set up with help from a $1 million EU grant.
Reached yesterday, EU Ambassador to Cambodia George Edgar said the logging allegations were of “serious concern” and called on the Cambodian government to investigate.