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Blind eye to forest’s plight

Blind eye to forest’s plight

Rangers paid by an internationally funded conservation organisation have been directly profiting for years from the very trade they are supposed to be preventing in southwest Cambodia, documents obtained by the Post allege.

Former Conservation International (CI) staff members say when they spoke up about endemic corruption that was facilitating the illegal logging of the Central Cardamom Protected Forest (CCPF), which stretches across three provinces, they were fired for doing so.

Written complaints from the chief of a community management committee in the CCPF backed by CI detail how luxury timber confiscated by officials on the organisation’s payroll simply “disappeared”, and did so systematically.

A “bribe book” photographed by sacked former staff member Thap Savy, allegedly shows how CI-supported Forestry Administration and military police officials [rangers] made a lucrative business out of “conservation”.

“I saw CI took the money from the illegal loggers. I came to talk personally and complain to the CI director [Seng Bunra], that’s why I was sacked,” he said.

The 401,310-hectare Central Cardamom Protected Forest is lauded by Conservation International as one of the best-protected forests in Cambodia, free of any large-scale illegal logging.

But former staff, conservationists and the people living there say the forest is being decimated by the illicit timber trade, which has been active since 2009.

CI senior vice-president David Emmett simply denies that large-scale illegal rosewood logging takes place at all inside the CCPF.

“This illegal logging of rosewood is not large-scale in the CCPF and CI is not profiting, engaging or supporting this threat,” he said in an email last year.

Significant quantities of the luxury timber did not even exist in the protected forest area and illegal logging was isolated to a small number of individuals that were not collaborating with companies in the area, the email said.

These claims have been systematically discredited by photographic evidence obtained from CI’s own reports, the accounts of former staff and consultants, as well as those of villagers who live inside the area.

Conservationists have valued the illicit trade in the CCPF at tens of millions of dollars per year and on three occasions the Post has witnessed the illegal rosewood trade in the area first hand.

On each occasion, from December 2011 to March 2012, military and police officials have attempted to intimidate journalists and gone to lengths to stop the Post from obtaining information, going so far as to set up a road block in an attempt to prevent pictures of the logging from getting out.

CI country director Seng Bunra told the Post last week that his organisation is now planning to investigate the allegations.

“We are deeply concerned about the alleged illegal harvesting of wood in the CCPF and alleged illegal behaviour by those charged with its protection. We are willing to support an independent investigation into these allegations,” he said by email.

Seng Bunra said alleged offenders were not employees of CI but Forestry Administration rangers; however, he acknowledged his organisation “provide sub-grants” to the FA “and monitor progress on agreed tasks and deliverables on a monthly basis”.

Any cases of FA misconduct are reported to the FA’s administration, he said.

Gordon Claridge is a natural resource management specialist with more than 20 years experience who worked for CI in 2005 evaluating law enforcement effectiveness in protected forests including the CCPF.

He said that rather than blurring the lines of responsibility in their project areas, CI should have investigated allegations of misconduct when they were first raised.

“What he [David Emmett] really denied was that CI knew anything about it or had any role in law enforcement,” he said. “I think that was the worst thing he could do, because everyone working in conservation in Cambodia knows there is a certain amount of illegal logging going on in all good-quality forests.”

Another conservation group – Wildlife Alliance – has said that large-scale illegal logging of rosewood, called krunyung in Khmer, is rampant all over southwest Cambodia.

Executive director Suwanna Gauntlett describes the fierce competition between illegal timber dealers to log rosewood in the CI project area in the northern CCPF – O’Som commune in Pursat province’s Veal Veng district – as “total anarchy”.

The trade was so destructive that it became known as “the krunyung wars”, she said.


Parts of O’Som commune in the northern CCPF, where CI maintains a ranger station, look like the aftermath of a war zone.

Large swaths of forest in the commune have been completely gutted, leaving just stumps and eroded soil in a charred, barren landscape.

This is destruction from the harvesting of m’reach preu, trees with a unique bark that can be boiled and distilled to produce safrole oil, an ingredient used in the production of methamphetamines.  

This industry has followed in the wake of the rosewood extraction.

Luxury rosewood, loggers in the area said, is now largely gone: systematically cut out for timber brokers working for MDS Import Export, a company that was licensed to clear the Stung Atai hydropower dam reservoir, but allegedly abused the licence to log extensively in the CCPF, over the 2009-2011 period.

Now, they said, most of the brokers have moved to Thma Bang on the southern border of the CCPF in search of rosewood, but that hadn’t stopped illegal logging in O’Som – people had simply turned to the remaining cheaper varieties of timber.

At about 9.30pm on Friday, March 16, a policeman shone a flashlight at the CI-supported ranger station in O’Som and a truck passed through, unimpeded.

The receptionist at a nearby hotel said this was the modus operandi to alert corrupt rangers that a truck was carrying rosewood destined for tycoon Try Pheap’s company – MDS.

Later, a Post journalist had to flee the hotel in the middle of the night to evade intimidation from police and FA officials.

Khemarak, a 22-year-old from O’Som commune who declined to give his family name, said he could make about 50,000 riel [US$12.50] for transporting one 500 kilogram load of illegally cut rosewood.

He identified Yey Mab as the biggest of eight brokers in that area that run a clandestine timber trade he said CI was well aware of.

“I have never had problems with CI [paid FA officials], I just give 5,000 riel each time so that they let me go safely, and sometimes I give them the corruption money on the way back,” he said.

“Now, CI [paid FA] officers are my friend, because I make money for them. Sometimes, when I have the wildlife meat, I take it to cook and drink at CI checkpoint.”

Loggers were expected to know the correct etiquette when dealing with the officials and honestly report their activities before paying bribes, he said.

Other names of brokers he mentions, such as Kly and Chhoeut, appear in what former CI community engagement field officer Thap Savy alleges is a bribe book used by FA rangers financially supported by CI.

The photographed book lists trucks, homemade cars, ox-carts, cars and motorbikes passing through the CI-supported O’Som commune ranger station, naming which individuals paid how much for each type of vehicle that passed through, all carrying rosewood destined for MDS stockpiles.

From July 2011 to August, about $US5,757 is listed in 44 separate payments, literally using the term “middle men” for names including Ta Hour, Khly, Yeay Peov, Yeay Tren, Kok Seng, Kon Khmeng, Lay Comtie, Keny Seny, Pooan Khly and Thlai Chhoeut.

The former staff member who photographed the book laughs when he is asked why he was dismissed from CI, stating in English, “restructuring”.

“I was told ‘don’t try to compete with the company’ and [that I] should withdraw. But I still continued; otherwise, there would be no more timber. All my members, four people in the community engagement team, were sacked [by CI]; [this happened to me] after 10 years working in 2011,” he said.

“[CI country director] Bunra sacked me, I knew too much and reported too much.”

It was not just Thap Savy who was raising alarms. In June 2009, the head of one of CI’s community management committees raised the alarm that rangers on the CI payroll were selling off stockpiles of rosewood confiscated inside the CCPF.

In a series of reports to the government and conservation group Fauna and Flora International, he pleaded for help to stop a wave of illegal logging, violence and drug abuse that had descended on his community.

CI ranger chief Thong Vannarith kept “losing” illegally cut rosewood that his community patrol team had confiscated, one report from 2009 states.

“The CI community patrol team and CI [FA and MP] rangers in O’Som had problems [with] each other related to losing of confiscated timbers that keeping at CI ranger station,” the report reads.

The report listed three cases where rosewood confiscated by the community rangers in O’Som commune was “lost” after being handed over to CI/FA rangers, under the supervision of Thong Vannarith.

Each batch of confiscated rosewood would have been worth at least $10,000, given the photographic evidence obtained by the Post and known market prices of rosewood.

“When CI community patrol team asked about the reasons of losing, CI rangers never provide detail information related to losing of those timbers or conducting investigation,” the report states.

Repeatedly, these reports, which have been cross-verified by the author, a consultant to FFI and a former consultant to CI, ask for help on behalf of O’Som community rangers from the government and NGOs to stop illegal activity in the area.

The author of those reports has told the Post nothing has changed since and he is fed up with CI-backed FA rangers arresting small-scale loggers while profiting from the big guys.

“We cannot protect the trees because of CI, who is working to protect the trees, did corruption with the illegal loggers. We try to protect the trees but CI try to make smooth way for illegal loggers.”

A 2010 report from FFI consultant Jeremy Ironside found that “WildAid (currently known as Wildlife Alliance) rangers have in the past arrested ‘FA/CI rangers’ in the O’Som area for involvement with rosewood loggers.”

The situation became so serious, that in March 2010, a patrol team comprising Wildlife Alliance staff, FA officials and Royal Cambodian Gendarmes intercepted a convoy of trucks in the CCPF and confiscated seven trucks carrying 691 pieces of illegal rosewood, WA and FA reports show.

Repeatedly, WA reports show frustration with Thong Vannarith, whom they identify as a CI/FA ranger.

“Informants, MPs [military police], FAs, all say the same thing: CI teams hire workers to cut the timber and then sell it to MDS Company – and confiscate from offenders and then sell to MDS,” one report states.

Repeated attempts to contact Thong Vannarith by the Post have not been successful and CI has not provided contact details for him but has denied he is a staff member.

Another villager in O’Som, who only gave his name as Vandy, said he used to work in a rosewood furniture factory staffed by about 71 people that belonged to the same man who owns MDS Import Export – Try Pheap.

But he resigned because staff would not let him leave the premises, from which at least 10 trucks of rosewood were being sent to Vietnam each day.

“The reason that they did not allow us to leave from the factory was because they were afraid that we would speak out about illegal loggers bringing the timber into the factory every day.”

The Post has repeatedly attempted to contact MDS Import Export and Try Pheap, but has been unable to reach them.

The 120MW Stung Atay dam being constructed by Chinese firm Yunnan Corporation for International Techno-Economic Cooperation is not the only project in or nearby the CCPF that has attracted allegations that the company, which is licensed to clear the reservoir, is flagrantly abusing its contract.

History repeating

Two casually dressed men drove from house to house in Thma Bang district’s Russey Chrum commune, where CI maintains its primary ranger station, last week with a set of scales stashed in the back of a Toyota Vigo pick-up truck.

The men, allegedly military police officers, were buying up rosewood from almost every family in the village.

After selling a stump to the men, Choy Sao, 38, said he and others came to settle in the isolated jungle area on the border of the CCPF about nine months ago for one simple reason – to put food on the table.

“I am selling day by day. When I get it from the jungle, I take it to sell at Ta [grandfather] Thong’s house. I could [not] keep it for longer, otherwise I have no money to support my family,” he said.

About five kilometres away, he and six other people are digging up rosewood stumps because there are no actual trees left.

But in areas surrounding the Areng valley in the CCPF, where CI also maintains a ranger station, he said people are still logging the trees that fetch between US$5,000 and $8,000 per cubic metre.

Choy Sao doesn’t understand why forestry administration officials crack down on small-scale loggers like him yet allow larger hauls of the timber, transported in about seven truckloads each day, to pass without restriction.

“I don’t know why CI [backed rangers] did not confiscate rosewood from the trucks and why sometimes they confiscated from us,” he said.

Choch Srey Lihn, 19, said all the men in her village were heading out into the jungle each day with crowbars and axes to find rosewood stumps for Ta Thong.

“Recently, CI stopped confiscating our rosewood. I don’t know the reason why. Maybe because we do business together and the broker buys the wood for the company,” she said.

The company Choch Srey Linh is referring to is Timber Green, which was licensed to clear the reservoir for the nearby Stung Tatai dam project under construction by China National Heavy Machinery Corporation.

But instead of just clear felling the dam site, Timber Green, protected by a small army of military police officers that block journalists from going to the dam site, are paying people to selectively log rosewood, villagers allege.  

Repeated attempts to contact Timber Green have been unsuccessful, but Tou Savuth, governor of Thma Bang district, has denied anyone logs outside the 1,850-hectare reservoir area.

“I don’t know the real name of the company but our villagers just said that it is a Chinese company, so all the villagers who cut the rosewood have to sell to the company.”

Koh Kong provincial governor Bun Leut also denied that illegal logging, backed by Timber Green, was taking place in Thma Bang, but said it was not his responsibility.

“I don’t know the action of illegal logging and cutting trees, because it is the duty of administration and forestry,” he said.

At 11pm, about two hours after villagers in nearby Russei Chrum commune have switched their lights out and gone to bed, trucks loaded with rosewood concealed by bamboo leaves begin driving down the road.

Who’s responsible?

Conservation International’s David Emmett has told the Post the organisation does not have any enforcement role in the CCPF or any ground-level staff.

Though CI had “worked for many years with communities, businesses and governments to increase protection and enforcement of key biodiversity areas and halt deforestation” in the CCPF, he effectively denied responsibility for alleged misconduct committed by FA rangers incorporated in this project.

“CI does not actively manage the CCPF, does not oversee enforcement and does not maintain or facilitate any checkpoints or rangers in or outside the CCPF,” he wrote.

“In fact, CI does not even have staff on the ground in the Central Cardamoms Protected Forest – our team works with the local communities outside this area.”

That’s not how the organisation’s role was explained in a handout from a joint FA/CI workshop in 2008.

“The Thma Bang Field Station was constructed in 2001,” it reads.

“It functions as a main base for Forestry Administration (FA)/Conservation International-Cambodia (CI) law enforcement rangers protecting the Central Cardamom Protected Forest (CCPF).”

Other documents obtained by the Post, including a 2009 PowerPoint presentation by Seng Bunra (available online), state that “CCPF is managed in partnership with FA and CI”, with more than 50 “counterpart staff” from FA and Military Police (MP) at six ranger stations.   

Online materials and former CI staff have said that community conservation agreements are maintained with communes inside the CCPF, including Tatai Leu and O’Som: something Emmett has also denied.

Gordon Claridge also flatly rejects CI’s denial that it has a law enforcement role in the CCPF.

“Not only is a CI staff member the law enforcement manager in their CCPF project team, but the organisation pays the salaries of military police stationed at the Veal Pi checkpoint on route 48 [in Thma Bang],” he said in an email to the Post. 

In December, the Post reported significant trafficking of illegal timber past this checkpoint.

Claridge also said CI used GPS technology to monitor Forestry Administration law enforcement patrols.

“This is by no means an exhaustive catalogue of CI’s involvement with law enforcement in the CCPF, but clearly CI is taking a very hands-on role in law enforcement despite David Emmett’s denial of any oversight,” he wrote.

From 2008 to 2011, France’s official development donor Agence Française de Développement agreed to support CI’s Cardamom Ecosystem Conservation program with 840,000 euro, about US$1,114,000, to be provided to Cambodia’s Forestry Administration but administered by CI.

These funds for protection of the CCPF have been used to pay for CI staff and office costs, former consultants to the organisation have said.

AFD’s contribution to the project in an area estimated to be home to between 8,000 and 10,000 people was to be supported by CI with 1,240,000 euro ($1,640,000), a 2005 project outline shows.

One of four intended goals was the “Organisation and sustainable long-term management of protected areas (PAs) through the strengthening of forest and water management capacity; elaboration of a business-plan, and preparation of a trust fund for sustainable financing of the PAs.”

AFD has not been able to provide the Post with an official comment other than to highlight that it is responsible for financing, not implementing projects in the protected area.

But it has agreed to discuss allegations of corruption against those tasked with protecting the CCPF at a later date.

A 2005 summary of CI’s Cardamom Conservation Program lists “GEF (completed), the United Nations Foundation, USAID, United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Save the Tiger Fund, DANIDA, and Disney Foundation, among others,” as the supporting donors.

“Project activities are ongoing and focus on the conservation of biodiversity and forests in the Central Cardamoms Protected Forest, as well as buffer zones, such as Thma Bang and Areng Valley,” it states.

The report specifically identifies three components of the project: “(i) law enforcement; (ii) community engagement, and (iii) biological research and monitoring.”

In 2009, a man described by Emmett as a liaison between CI and the FA responsible for ensuring MDS Import and Export did not violate its clearing licence, Ouk Kimsan, was arrested for allegedly attempting to take two trucks carrying 70 cubic metres of timber into Vietnam.

“Past evidence has showed he’s had many years of opportunities to cut down high-value timber, but he’s done the opposite,” Emmett said at the time.

However, after his arrest, Ouk Kimsan left CI’s project to work for MDS, the company whose illegal logging activities in the CCPF he had allegedly been facilitating as head of CI’s ranger team.

Claridge said that he most recently registered himself as the managing director of Try Pheap’s T&Y Pheap Rubber Plantation at a November rubber conference that took place in Phnom Penh.

Ouk Kimsan has not responded to attempted inquiries via phone and email from the Post, and CI has not provided contact details for him.

Oam Meakary, director of Koh Kong province’s administration and forestry department, also denies there is large-scale logging in the CCPF.  

“CI has never taken a bribe from the loggers. If CI did, how could they escape from WildAid [Wildlife Alliance’s] hand? Opposition parties just come to incite villagers,” he said.

But Wildlife Alliance has had significant concerns about corruption and illegal logging in the CCPF to the extent that it has intervened on several occasions to stop illegal loggers coming out of the area.

Koh Kong, one of three provinces that the CCPF intersects, has been described by Prime Minister Hun Sen as “the battery province” because of its potential to produce hydroelectricity.

But there’s much more than power up for grabs in the fertile jungles of the CCPF.

Community members, consultants and staff repeatedly told CI’s management about the illicit timber trade that was taking place since 2009, but instead of acting on these concerns, the organisation simply denied it was true.

Millions of dollars in foreign donations go into CI’s programs to protect the CCPF.

Donors may want to know why millions of dollars in illegal timber are going back out.

To contact the reporters on this story:

David Boyle at [email protected]

May Titthara at [email protected]


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