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Government timber figures belie ‘ban’ on exports

Timber allegedly illegally exported from Cambodia to Vietnam stockpiled at the Hoa Lu border crossing in Binh Phuoc, which connects to Kratie province, in January this year. Photo supplied/forest trends
Timber allegedly illegally exported from Cambodia to Vietnam stockpiled at the Hoa Lu border crossing in Binh Phuoc, which connects to Kratie province, in January this year. Photo supplied/forest trends

Government timber figures belie ‘ban’ on exports

A series of quarterly reports from the National Bank of Cambodia raises questions about the government’s ban on timber exports, as they show that last year, more than $5 million in sawn timber was exported from the Kingdom.

The latest report, released earlier this month using statistics sourced from the Department of Customs and Excise, reports sawn timber exports valued at $780,000 over the last three months of 2017.

Combined with figures from previous reports for the year – which name sawn timber as a “major component of total exports” – the total value of sawn timber exported by Cambodia stands at 20.1 billion riel (about $5.22 million).

This figure is in stark contrast to last year’s sawn timber export value of $173 million to Vietnam reported by the NGO Forest Trends in February. The Environment Ministry has contested the data as unofficial as it did not come directly from the Vietnamese government, though the NGO does source its information from Vietnam’s General Department of Customs. Similar data produced by the watchdog group Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) were also contested.

Reached for comment on Tuesday, Environment Ministry spokesman Sao Sopheap directed all inquiries to the Ministry of Agriculture, and calls to a spokesman went unanswered. Calls to the Commerce Ministry and National Bank to clarify the nature of the statistics also went unanswered.

According to Jago Wadley, a senior forest campaigner for EIA, Cambodia’s ban on unsawn logs is understood to be universal, while a moratorium on sawn timber may only apply to exports to Vietnam. He said documentation of the latter is hard to come by, with the directive seemingly coming straight from Hun Sen.

“As such, there may be some legal exports to other markets that are not Vietnam, and perhaps it is these, in theory, that the [NBC] is reporting,” he said.

In a previous email to The Post, Wadley noted repeated rejections from the Environment Ministry to consider their statistics, and invited the ministry to review the data.

“If Cambodia does not trust EIA, but does actually seek to see the evidence of official imports into Vietnam, they should ask Vietnam for the data. Or they should ask us. That they have not done so suggests they don’t want to see the evidence,” he wrote.

Similarly, Forest Trends senior policy analyst Phuc Xuan To in an email last month noted the existing cooperation between his group and the governments of Laos and Vietnam and the positive results it has had in curbing the illegal timber trade.

“If there’s strong political will in Cambodia, Cambodian government could follow Lao government’s approach. I believe it will work,” he said.

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