At least 27 vehicles loaded with confiscated timber were destroyed by fire while parked in the Kravanh Forestry Administration compound in Pursat province on Sunday, leaving no evidence for potential prosecution and rights groups doubting the authorities’ version of events.
Phnom Kravanh district deputy police chief Sem Rorn, who helped put out the fire, said police are still unsure of the exact reason for the blaze, since the compound is surrounded by a concrete wall. Their current theory is that the fire spread through the dry grass-filled drains under the wall.
“After the fire died, police checked the surrounding area and noticed that the drain pipes were full of grass,” he said. “It is the initial point of the spread of the fire into the Forestry Administration’s campus.”
Rorn said that it took four water trucks 45 minutes to contain the fire inside the compound. A forestry official said Minister of Agriculture Ouk Rabun had personally inspected the compound after the fire.
The forestry office refused to say to whom the timber or trucks had belonged but said the seized wood had been there for some time.
Civil society groups yesterday blasted the Forestry Administration’s carelessness, with some saying it was difficult to believe that this latest timber blaze was an accident.
Phuong Sothea, Pursat coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said that evidence such as seized timber must be protected, since it is the only thing that can incriminate logging offenders.
“The negligence leading to the complete destruction reflects the irresponsibility of the officials and leaders of Forestry Administration; and for this case, the court should launch a thorough investigation or issue a warning letter over the evidence damage,” Sothea said.
A forestry expert in regular contact with various forestry officials and community watchdog groups across Cambodia, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the latest fire, much like the ones before it, can be traced back to illegal logging groups and the corrupt officials that help them.
Prak Munny, deputy country director of the Wildlife Conservation Society, said yesterday that the sheer number of timber stockpile fires over the past few months was “unprecedented”, and that he had never seen so many timber flare-ups in such a short span in his 15 years working on Cambodian environmental issues.
Most of the latest timber fires have occurred since the launch of the anti-logging commission in January and the launch of a nationwide crackdown.
Phorn Bunthet, Kravanh Forestry Administration chief, could not be reached for explanation yesterday. Meas Sorphoan, deputy chief of the Somrong Commune Forestry Administration, declined to comment on the case.