The Environment Ministry has contested Vietnamese customs data suggesting the trade in illegal timber remains vast, though Cambodian authorities will not release their own export records to show how much wood is flowing to the Kingdom’s eastern neighbour.
In a recent statement, the ministry expressed “disappointment” with “NGOs” and “some media” for “distorting, exaggerating and misleading” the public about the current state of natural forests in Cambodia.
It alleged that forestry crimes and timber exports abroad were overblown in an effort to undermine the government’s efforts to protect natural resources and as part of a “political agenda”.
“Large-scale forest crime does not happen anymore in Cambodia,” it read, adding authorities had been “preventing” and “eliminating” medium- and small-scale extraction.
The statement followed the release of Vietnamese customs data compiled by US-based NGO Forest Trends showing that Vietnam had registered imports of some 313,000 cubic metres of Cambodian timber – valued at $142 million – in the first six months of 2017.
The figure, which flies in the face of a timber export ban announced in January last year, was almost on par with the total imports of Cambodian timber for 2016, according to Vietnamese customs data.
Cambodia’s own Customs and Excise Department has not released corresponding data for timber exports and officials, including Environment Minister Say Sam Al, have insisted the ban and an ensuing crackdown have been successful.
Efforts to reach and obtain records from border checkpoints and the General Department of Customs and Excise were unsuccessful.
In its response, the Environment Ministry cited figures from its General Department of Nature Preservation and Protection indicating the rate of forest loss has slowed in recent years.
According to an explanation of the statistics provided in English, the average annual rate of forest cover loss in protected areas was 0.62 percent between 2006 and 2014, but fell to 0.3 percent between 2014 and 2016.
The explanation also gives the preliminary results of a 2016 assessment of Cambodia’s total forest cover, including unprotected forests. According to the ministry, forests cover some 45 percent of the country, and from 2014 to 2016, forest cover loss was equivalent to about 0.82 of the country’s total land area each year. The figure marks a sharp drop from the 2.7 percent annual loss recorded between 2010 and 2014.
A slowdown in forest cover loss is also reflected in University of Maryland satellite data analysed by Global Forest Watch, which show Cambodia lost 18 percent less forest cover in 2015 than it did in 2014.
However, long-time anti logging activist Marcus Hardtke said the drop in figures was a result of a 2012 moratorium on economic land concessions. The huge tracts, often totalling thousands of hectares and granted inside forests, were routinely clear-felled. As their timber supplies dried up, so did forest cover loss, Hardtke said.
The targeted felling of valuable trees, in which surrounding scrub is left behind, is more difficult to detect on satellite, he continued, pointing to a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency in May detailing a “systematic” logging operation backed by Vietnamese traders over the dry season.
Hardtke said the Vietnamese customs data reinforced the EIA report, and gave an indication of “new” sources of timber by breaking down Cambodian timber imports to Vietnam by border checkpoint.
Among the three most active border gates is Vietnam’s Hoa Lu checkpoint, which connects to Cambodia’s Pi Thnou commune, in Kratie province’s Snoul district.
The checkpoint is close to a timber depot set up for the roughly 70,000 cubic metres of timber confiscated during the logging crackdown launched in January 2016.
That timber was bought at auction by a company called V-Energy, which, according to leaked documents, received permits to export just 1,300 cubic metres of wood.
However, with more than 58,000 cubic metres of timber passing through Hua Lu checkpoint alone in the first six months of the year, Hardkte questioned whether the depot and route were also being used to launder timber, and called for an increase of inspections at the site.
Reached this week, the deputy chief of the checkpoint, Sen Sorn, said he was unaware of any wood flowing past the border gate before declining to comment further.
Also among the top three Vietnamese checkpoints receiving Cambodian wood were two close to Ratanakkiri province, the site of much of the dry season logging, according to EIA.
The Le Tanh gate, connected to O’Yadav border crossing in Ratanakkiri, registered almost 150,000 cubic metres of timber from Cambodia between January and June.
The other, the Quoc Te Bo Y border gate, which registered nearly 63,000 cubic metres of Cambodian timber, isn’t even connected to the Kingdom at all. Just 3 kilometres from Cambodia’s border at the north-eastern tip of Ratanakkiri, known as the “dragon’s tail”, the gate actually borders Laos’ Attapeu province, but is linked to Ratanakkiri by road.
Forest Trends analyst Phuc Xuan To said timber transporters could be travelling through Laos for several reasons, including less stringent controls, relationships with officials at the crossing, lower official and “unofficial” costs, and perhaps the distance from the logging site.
The proximity of the area to the Virachey National Park, however, was worrying, said Hardkte, particularly in light of the border road, currently being built, which will eventually skirt the boundary and hem in the protected area.
“Field reports suggest that logs are going straight across unofficial crossings to facilities in Vietnam,” Hardtke said. “This will increase in the next dry season, and Virachey National Park will be the target of organised illegal logging once again. This border road poses a dire threat to the integrity of the park.”