The anti-logging commission established in January by Prime Minister Hun Sen boasted in an April report that it had all but eliminated illegal logging and smuggling in the eastern provinces. Locals in the Kingdom’s east tell a vastly different story.
Interviews with NGOs, government institutions and more than 30 people from six different communities in Tbong Khmum, Kratie and Mondulkiri indicate that – thanks to rampant official corruption and spiking demand – smuggling has continued unabated, and could even be on the rise.
Small-time timber transporters, who either illegally log or pick up leftover wood, almost entirely support a shadowy bribe economy. Meanwhile, large timber trucks belonging to wealthier entrepreneurs remain untouched, and sometimes even get police escorts on their way to the Vietnam border, locals say.
“Every gathering in the village talks about this issue,” said Khim Tha, a resident of a village in Kratie’s Thmey commune where most people eke out a livelihood by selling wood.
Documented timber exports to Vietnam – the bulk of them rosewood – soared between 2013 and 2015, with the volume of logs exported increasing by a factor of 142 and seven times that amount in sawn wood crossing the border, according to Vietnamese customs data.
Communities living in Cambodia’s eastern provinces, along with multiple NGOs working there, have said that illegal timber exports are expanding, apparently contradicting the words of anti-logging commission spokesman Eng Hy and a local Forestry Administration official as well as the more optimistic assessments of some NGOs.
“There are at least 20 to 30 big trucks per night” on some roads in Tbong Khmum and Kratie, said Prey Lang Community Network coordinator Seng Sokheng on Wednesday. “There are many hundreds of minivans.”
Locals engaged in the timber business described a three-step process in the collection of graft. The first bribes are paid when picking up wood from economic land concessions (ELCs) or initially getting it out of the forest.
The second comes when the timber is taken onto a national road and driven to the border or to a middleman in Tbong Khmum. The third takes place during the sale of the timber to the broker who will take it into Vietnam.
Most of the Cambodian wood imported into Vietnam is used to make furniture, according to Phuc Xuan To, a researcher with the organisation Forest Trends. “High value species are exported to China. Lower value species stay in domestic market in Vietnam,” he said in an email.
However, many community members said that since last year, they have seen a sharp increase in the amount of wood being sold for stakes for growing crops, especially pepper.
This draws in an increasing number of small-time cutters and smugglers, while large-scale smuggling by wealthy businesspeople continues at its pre-crackdown pace, locals and NGOs said.
In interviews, community members never acknowledged cutting trees themselves, and said that they make a living by picking up leftover wood from cleared ELC land. However, many were happy to pin the blame on neighbouring communities, where they say anywhere between 25 and 40 per cent of the residents engaged in illegal logging.
“The real picture is: the people are cutting the forest,” said an eco-tour guide in Mondulkiri. “There is very little leftover wood from ELCs. They cut down the big trees and burn the rest.”
According to the Forestry Administration (FA), any logging is illegal when the loggers lack an official permission document.
Almost all those who cut wood and are not employed by an ELC are poor and see selling lumber as their best chance to make money. Depending on the quality and quantity of the wood, the payoff can run from 30,000 riel (about $7.50) to hundreds of dollars per haul.
Much of this wood is transported via hundreds of vans and minivans, which can be seen all over the main roads in the east. The majority goes to Vietnam, residents say. In Tbong Khmum there is a market for middlemen to buy wood from the locals, then take it over the border.
The roads are lined with checkpoints belonging to different branches of police, military police and the FA. Officers at these checkpoints try to extract as many bribes from passing transporters as possible. Soldiers and blackmailing “journalists” drive up and down the roads in order to extort money of their own.
The amount of money these checkpoints take varies, but most of those interviewed said it’s usually 5,000 to 10,000 riel per stop. To cover the entirety of their trip, transporters have to pay a total of 100,000 to 200,000 riel, about $25 to $50, in bribes, according to Kong Pon, another resident of Thmey commune.
If transporters don’t cooperate or say they can’t pay, they risk having their chainsaws or vehicles confiscated and held for as much as $1,000, according to Leng Ty, a timber transporter in Kratie. Sometimes the police, military police, FA or “journalists” come to the transporters’ homes to claim the money, multiple villagers said.
Sometimes the police will station themselves with a civilian’s house near a major road. Homeowners spoken to by the Post refused to say whether the police pay rent. However, one woman who owns a house but rarely stays in it said of its use by the police: “When they come, we can’t kick them out.”
Despite this, arrests of timber transporters are extremely rare. Those caught with illegal wood need only hand over some cash for authorities to turn a blind eye, multiple witnesses told reporters.
Even FA officials themselves have been accused of clearing forests, then selling the timber for hundreds of dollars per hectare to various entrepreneurs, said Ho Phally, who lives in Khyoem commune, in Kratie’s Snuol district.
Officers from the military police, economic police and the FA along national roads in Kratie and Tbong Khmum approached by the Post largely refused to speak.
One forestry officer who spoke on condition of anonymity would only say: “Taking money is illegal. I don’t see it happening so I cannot say. You should go look for it if you want to know.”
But that very officer, along with half a dozen others spoken to by reporters, featured prominently in videos provided to the Post by a timber transporter. In the videos, the men can be seen coming up to timber-loaded vans and taking money from drivers. Sometimes the driver who supplied the videos would get out and hand them money, filming with a camera hidden in his sleeve. In most cases, few words are exchanged.
On Sunday evening in Tbong Khmum, a Post reporter watched as a military police officer accompanied by a local journalist stopped a timber van and requested money from the driver. When the driver paid up, the officer allowed the vehicle to proceed.
Military police spokesman Eng Hy, who also serves as the spokesman for the anti-logging commission, said in an interview yesterday that an officer who could be seen taking money from a transporter in one of the videos – which was uploaded to the internet – has been suspended, pending an investigation.
Hy also vowed that the military police will investigate each of the bribery incidents uncovered by the Post, but didn’t offer additional comments. National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith yesterday asked a reporter to report all such incidents to the National Police’s tip office, which would then take action.
Multiple attempts to reach the Forestry Administration for comment this week were unsuccessful. Villagers interviewed across several communes said that authorities have prevented transporters in the area from buying wood over the past several days following the leaking of the video showing the military police officer taking money.
But large timber trucks manage to stay above the bribe economy. Community members in different provinces, as well as NGOs, said they see military police vehicles, marked and unmarked, escorting big trucks and sometimes even helping them when they break down.
Phally, of Snuol district, says he sees at least five trucks pass his house daily. Others put the number at 20 or 30 per day. “These trucks belong to powerful people, because we see the military allow them to go freely,” said a Tbong Khmum resident who said he had to flee the province because of death threats due to his secret filming of bribes. “Why do they only extort money from small people like us?”
Yim Choen, of the Phnong indigenous community in Mondulkiri, said that when they stop illegal loggers and confiscate their vehicles, law enforcement officers come to rescue the vehicles. “They have guns and we don’t have guns; we can’t do anything,” he said.
In some places, police engage in car chases with fleeing timber transporters, posing a major threat to other drivers on the narrow roads, which are already made uneven by the weight of heavy trucks. The chases can result in injury or death. Other people have occasionally been shot by pursuing officials, locals say, an assertion police in the area refused to comment on.
“We have seen police, military police and soldiers . . . chase people for money . . . This makes a mess along the roads in Dambe, Ponhea Krek, Memot and Tbong Khmum districts,” said Neang Vat, the Tbong Khmum provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc.
Yet few people have been arrested. In nearly every publicised timber bust this year, drivers managed to “escape”, according to officials. Sceptical NGOs, however, say that it’s far likelier they paid a bribe and were simply allowed to leave.
Amid this corruption, Cambodia’s forest cover continues to vanish. Some timber transporters interviewed said they were aware of this, but didn’t want to give up the most lucrative livelihood available to them. As several said, if they don’t cut or collect the wood, somebody else will.
And yet, the growing burden of bribes is making the illegal timber business more troublesome every year, locals say. But still the trade rolls on, and will continue to, said Choen, the Mondulkiri resident, as long as there’s a demand for timber.
“Some NGOs try to help but the relevant authorities do not help,” he said. “To prevent this from happening, we need to block the ones who buy the wood.”