Despite the establishment of a dedicated anti-logging taskforce and the implementation of a ban on the export of logs, Cambodia exported $121 million of wood to Vietnam in the first nine months of this year, according to Vietnamese customs data shared with the Post by NGO Forest Trends.
Observers say the data give lie to the government’s oft-repeated claims this year that large-scale logging and exports to Vietnam have been ended in Cambodia.
“Well-connected timber tycoons [are] running sawmills and sourcing indiscriminately,” conservationist Marcus Hardtke said in an email yesterday. “It is organized and systemic, undermining forest management efforts. This cannot be pushed under the carpet as ‘small-scale’.”
His sentiments were echoed by Goldman Prize-winning conservationist Ouch Leng, who wrote in an email: “I found that business is more [of a] priority than protection [of] the forest, what they think is how to make money with the timber.”
Julian Newman – campaigns director at London-based NGO Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which has researched illicit timber trading in the Mekong region extensively – wrote in an email that it would not be possible for small-scale logging to generate $121 million of timber in nine months “unless it’s high value rosewood”.
Contacted yesterday even-ing, Environment Ministry spokesman Eang Sophalleth said that while he could not comment directly on the Vietnamese customs data without having the opportunity to verify it, the government’s official position is that all large-scale logging in Cambodia has finished.
“As far as we’re concerned, all the major logging has been ended with operations that have been carried out in the last couple of months by the anti-logging taskforce,” Sophalleth said.
Eng Hy, spokesman for the anti-logging taskforce established earlier this year with a mandate directly from Prime Minister Hun Sen to stamp out illegal logging, also declined to comment on the data yesterday.
The data cover January to September of this year. In that period, Vietnamese customs authorities registered 115,694 cubic metres of sawn wood valued at $105.9 million as having entered from Cambodia along with 59,128 cubic metres of logs, valued at $15.5 million.
Hardtke, the conservationist, noted that the export of logs from Cambodia is illegal, having been banned in mid-January.
“If we are looking at logs from natural forests, it is either done with the collusion of authorities in Cambodia, or the [Vietnamese] side is including smuggled timber into their databases,” Hardtke wrote.
EIA’s Newman said that Vietnam’s acceptance of Cambodian logs despite Phnom Penh’s outlawing their export meant Hanoi bore some responsibility for Cambodian logging: “It should respect the laws and regulations of neighbouring countries.”
Both he and Goldman Prize-winner Leng cautioned that the EU, too, risked becoming complicit in Cambodia’s timber trade if it was not careful.
“Vietnam is currently discussing a timber trade agreement with the EU,” Newman wrote. “EIA is pushing to ensure that under this agreement, Vietnam had to exclude illegal timber from its market.
“EU [has] to make sure to stop importing all kinds of timber products from Vietnam too,” Leng wrote. “If not, [the] EU [is] also [involved in] and responsible [for] deforestation in Cambodia.”
Imports spiked in April and May, totalling $27 million, almost a quarter of the nine months’ imports. Hardtke noted that this coincided with the peak of the anti-logging taskforce’s crackdown, which kicked off in mid-January.
“[It] could be timber confiscated during the crackdown in Eastern Cambodia already being moved across the border,” Hardtke wrote.
Additional reporting by Mech Dara