More than $35 million worth of Siamese rosewood was gifted to logging baron Try Pheap’s companies earlier this year by the cabinet of Prime Minister Hun Sen under orders that the tycoon destroy the wood.
But it appears no checks were put in place to ensure the protected timber was destroyed and not exported abroad, despite the collection, storage and processing of the luxury wood having been banned by prime ministerial directive in February last year.
According to the minutes of an August meeting between the Forestry Administration (FA), donors and conservation groups that was published this week, Pheap’s companies were allowed to collect 1,600 cubic metres of rosewood from the FA “to prevent the Cambodian people [going] to Thailand to collect” rosewood.
The government estimates that last year alone 69 people were killed by Thai security forces while making the perilous journey across the Dangrek Mountains in the north to log the sought-after timber.
“The FA has to follow the government’s decision and handed the Krohnoung wood to the companies, around 1,600 m3,” the document reads, using a Khmer name for rosewood. “The FA has done its job. [The FA] emphasised that only Krohnoungwood [was] destroyed and other wood species are for selling through bidding and negotiating prices.”
Seng Bunra, country director of Conservation International, one of several environmental groups that attended the meeting of the Technical Working Group on Forestry Reform, said there had been no indication that the timber had actually been destroyed.
“So far, we did not see where the timber was destroyed, and we were not invited [to witness its destruction],” he said.
A representative of Pheap’s MDS Import Export Company yesterday hung up on a reporter when asked if the wood had been destroyed.
The European Union, which co-chairs the working group, declined to comment on the specifics of the contract signed in July.
“The EU’s objective for the forestry sector is to support Cambodia towards improved forest governance and law enforcement and, ultimately, the sustainable management of the world’s forests,” EU Ambassador Jean Francois-Cautain said in an emailed statement.
Tracy Farrell, senior technical director of the Greater Mekong Program at Conservation International, said that the lack of transparency in the agreement raised concerns about potential illegalities.
“We would like to see that a clear process be put in place to monitor the terms of the [contract] to make sure that the letter of this law is followed,” she said.
Pheap has long been accused of involvement in the illegal timber trade, and earlier this month, the Post exposed an alleged $227 million rosewood- laundering operation carried out by Pheap in the Cardamom Mountains from 2009 to 2012.
The rosewood allegedly laundered in the Cardamoms operation, mostly a less valuable species, was sold abroad for about $20,000 per cubic metre. Siamese rosewood has been known to fetch up to $50,000 per cubic metre in China.
An FA official, who was at the August meeting, yesterday said that what happened to the wood after it left the FA was “outside the mandate of the FA”.