Newly released Vietnamese customs data yesterday added further weight to reports that Vietnamese-backed illegal logging in Cambodia’s Ratanakkiri province surged during the dry season after provincial authorities in Vietnam’s Gia Lai province approved a mass importation of timber.
The data – which show a staggering spike in Cambodian timber flowing to Vietnam in March – was compiled and released by US NGO Forest Trends, whose regional analyst Phuc Xuan To yesterday said Vietnam’s central government, unhappy about diplomatic ramifications of the mass importation, was mulling changes to prohibit provincial authorities from authorising timber trade.
The new figures come after a damning report released Monday by the Environmental Investigations Agency (EIA) and previous reporting by The Post, which found that between November and April loggers working for Vietnamese timber traders stripped vast areas of protected forests in Ratanakkiri and flouted Cambodia’s supposed timber export ban, issued in January last year.
This surge followed a decision by Gia Lia Provincial People’s Committee in September to permit 16 companies from the province to import more than 300,000 cubic metres of timber.
In their report, EIA estimated just over that amount was stripped from Ratanakkiri’s protected areas and presented satellite pictures showing huge logs yards on the Vietnamese side of the border.
The customs figures, obtained by The Post yesterday, also suggest the quota was met, and then some.
Between November and March the period of reported intensive logging Vietnam received 348,000 cubic metres of timber, including 197,831 cubic metres of uncut logs, valued at almost $150 million dollars, according to the data.
In March alone, Vietnam received more than 98,000 cubic metres of Cambodian timber, more than half of which (51,949 cubic metres) were uncut logs, which have been illegal to export for two decades.
Cambodia’s Environment Minister Say Sam Al yesterday asked for more time to respond to EIA’s report, which alleges Vietnamese traders paid millions of dollars in bribes to Cambodian officials to log the country’s forests and smuggle out timber.
According to an article run by the Lao Dong Newspaper in Vietnam, senior officials from the country’s Communist Party visited the province on April 13 and warned local officials to stop people crossing into Cambodia to log illegally.
Via email, Xuan To, of Forest Trends, said Gia Lai’s 300,000-cubic-metre quota had stirred controversy within the country following complaints by Cambodian authorities to their Vietnamese counterparts, which Sam Al would not comment on.
He said currently, local authorities such as those in Gia Lai could approve timber imports through border crossings under their jurisdiction without the central government’s approval. However, this may change, he said.
“My insights from the MOIT [Ministry of Industry and Trade] show that MOIT recently has advised the prime minister to ban all imports through supplementary crossings between Vietnam and Cambodia and Vietnam and Laos. If the prime minister agrees with this advice, Gia Lai authorities, or other local authorities, cannot allow any imports,” he said.
Emails to Vietnam’s Ministry of Industry and Trade and Ministry of Foreign Affairs went unanswered yesterday.