The illegal timber trade to Vietnam, a key nexus in a shadow industry worth billions of dollars, has been all but eliminated, an official said yesterday in summarising a new report from the government’s anti-logging commission, a claim met with disbelief by more than one observer.
The commission’s report, which was sent to Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday but not made publicly available, unveils a story of widespread success, military police spokesman Eng Hy said yesterday.
A total of 51 court cases against both companies and individuals have been opened since the crackdown was initiated and 70,000 cubic metres of timber have been seized, Hy said.
“Some companies received land concessions, but they gave them to other companies to bulldoze or cut down forests … the prosecutors are investigating,” Hy said. “We stopped smuggling.”
It’s an assertion that did not ring true for Prey Lang Community Network coordinator Seng Sokheng.
“Illegal logging is still happening and timber abuse still continues,” Sokheng said. “Every day, we see many trucks export timber in Ratanakkiri, Mondulkiri and Tbong Khmum provinces. Some trucks export timber through Kampong Thom.”
“They cannot crack down or stop logging or export,” he added. “They just do it for a while.”
The crackdown’s temporary nature was also underscored by Transparency International Cambodia director Preap Kol, who said he expected it to continue intermittently through the 2018 parliamentary election.
“I can’t predict the future, but in past crackdowns, after they stopped, logging came back within two months … It’s not surprising at all that logging and smuggling have gone down,” he said. “[But] It is like a thunderstorm – it will pass.”
Thus far, the commission has not shared the names of the companies charged.
In Mondulkiri, provincial deputy prosecutor Long Hokmeng said six companies had been targeted, including Cambodian, Vietnamese and Singaporean enterprises.
“We still do not know yet whether the companies are responsible for the crimes or if individuals who got rights from the companies committed the crimes,” said Hokmeng.
Sok Ratha, a provincial coordinator with rights group Adhoc, said the investigation involves rubber producers Unigreen Resources Co Ltd and the Binh Phuoc companies but did not know the rest. He urged the government to be more transparent with the details.
“The committee must show their investigation [results] to the public … reveal which companies and people are involved with these crimes,” he said.
Not all alleged perpetrators were arrested – some only received summonses to appear in court, while others received arrest warrants. Meanwhile, in multiple operations over recent months, perpetrators repeatedly managed to escape despite being chased by police and forestry rangers.
But while the crackdown has been derided by some environmental activists, others see signs of progress.
Ross Sinclair, country director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which works with the government to monitor logging and poaching, said that illegal logging had visibly declined in protected areas in the east and north of the country.
“They haven’t been targeting the small village guy ... the patrols seems to be targeting middlemen and above, and that dried up demand from smaller operators,” said Sinclair. “We hope the committee continues and doesn’t finish.”
WCS deputy country director Prak Munny agreed that logging has declined in the east during the crackdown, but added that since the report had been sent, smuggling had already begun to pick back up in Keo Sema district of Mondulkiri.
Additional reporting by Phak Seangly and Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon