Thousands of cubic metres of endangered Siamese rosewood were sent to Vietnam in 2014 with export permits bearing the Photoshopped signature of a retired Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) secretary of state, a ministry official said yesterday.
The trade in Siamese rosewood was internationally outlawed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in 2013. The next year, in spite of the ban, more than seven thousand cubic metres were registered in the database of the CITES secretariat in Geneva as having been exported to Vietnam from Cambodia in six batches.
When this discrepancy was first brought to light last month by British NGO Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), the Cambodian CITES management authority – a department within MAFF responsible for granting trade permits for protected species as well as annually reporting on the trade to the secretariat – said it was unaware of the exports.
CITES Cambodia’s 2014 report to the secretariat in Geneva listed just two Siamese rosewood trees being exported – to Canada. If the Vietnamese management authority had registered imports from Cambodia, those imports must have been conducted with counterfeit permits, CITES Cambodia officer Suon Phalla said in an email last month, adding that his office was unaware of any such forgeries.
However, on Monday, Phalla passed the Post copies of emails he said were sent in December 2014, alerting CITES Vietnam that they had accepted four export permits that year bearing the signature of former MAFF secretary of state Uk Sokhon, who retired in October 2013.
Sokhon yesterday said that he had no knowledge of the permits and Phalla clarified in an email yesterday evening that CITES Cambodia did not suspect Sokhon had authorised them. “There was an illegal Vietnamese person [who] made the faked permit by using a scanned [Sokhon] signature,” Phalla wrote.
Sarah Brook, a Phnom Penh-based technical adviser to the Wildlife Conservation Society, said yesterday that counterfeit permits “can be a significant problem in countries like Cambodia where enforcement agencies are not always familiar with CITES regulations, including what the requirements are for CITES permits”.
CITES Vietnam did not respond to multiple requests for comment over the past month as to how they came to authorise imports of such large quantities of an endangered species.
Phalla cautions his Vietnamese counterparts in the December 2014 emails not to issue import permits for Siamese rosewood from Cambodia as his office does not issue export permits for the species.
Phalla also requested that CITES Vietnam collaborate in an investigation into the origin of the four permits bearing Sokhon’s signature; that they send the permits back to Phnom Penh; that they confiscate the timber in question; that they inform CITES Cambodia of the bearer of the permits; and that in future, they check the issuing signature on all permits against the CITES directory of persons authorised to sign them.
In a succinct reply six days later, CITES Vietnam director Do Quang Tung simply thanked Phalla for reaching out, informed him that the permits had been presented by a Tay Ninh province import/export company named “Cong ty TNHH Thuong mai XNK Go Nguyen Phuong” – which could not be found in the Vietnamese corporate registry yesterday – and that the company’s application for import permits would be denied.
“Since these permits are not valid, we will reject to issue the import permits,” Tung wrote.
In an email on Monday, Phalla said the Cambodian delegation to a CITES conference in South Africa this September would again raise the issue with the Vietnamese.