Minister of Interior Sar Kheng cited satellite footage of recent forest crimes as he criticised inept provincial officials for illegal logging and the flouting of the Kingdom’s forestry law.
“You are not born with the forest. We have an obligation to protect the natural resources of our country,” said Sar Kheng last week in Battambang province.
In sweeping remarks, Sar Kheng blamed Mondulkiri’s governor, Svay Sam Eang, for ignoring rampant deforestation in his province and said the evidence was too much to overlook.
“We have satellite footage, it is impossible to hide. We watch the timber hauling from one place to another. As far as I know, it is in Mondulkiri province."
“Now, I would like to order the Mondulkiri governor to inspect this, and if the governor does not control his subordinates, the governor will be in trouble as well,” he said.
Sar Kheng also criticised senior officials in Stung Treng province for allowing a company to clear the reservoir basin around the Lower Sesan II Dam in what he called “a pretext for logging the forest.”
“They logged trees from another place and claimed that the timber was cleared from the basin. That means the clearing of the reservoir basin has never stopped even though the hydropower dam has already been constructed. The clearing is still going on. If it is like this, how can we deal with that?” he asked.
Last week, Minister of Agriculture Veng Sakhon ordered senior forestry administration officials to inspect timber harvesting operations near the Lower Sesan II Dam amid reports of continuous logging.
“Go and inspect the timber in stock at Sesan II. They keep insulting us again and again,” Sakhorn said.
“Inspect the economic land concession, too, and inspect the quantity of the timber. We can estimate how many days it is going to take for timber transportation and how many trucks per day. It should be finished, but it has not.”
In 2012, Ang & Associates Lawyer Co Ltd – a subsidiary of the Royal Group chaired by tycoon Kith Meng, once an adviser to Hun Sen – was awarded the rights to clear 36,000ha of land in the Sesan basin.
Since 2013, there have been repeated accusations that the company is logging outside its permitted area near the Lower Sesan II Dam.
In February, the government decided to halt timber hauling in the reservoir basin and the clearing of the land concession until the national election had been completed.
And on August 31, the Ministry of Interior ordered the authorities in Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri and Stung Treng provinces to investigate and intercept all forestry crimes and report back to the ministry.
But Ouch Leng, an environment activist, said powerful interests undermine the effectiveness of any crackdown on illegal logging.
“From senior officials to provincial governors, they all know who runs the timber business. Logging timber requires permission from a provincial governor and the forestry administration."
“So the government knows who runs the timber trade. They pretend not to know in order to get the benefits from those timber traders,” he claimed.
In his speech in Battambang, Sar Kheng criticised Cambodia’s forestry law for not giving local authorities the power to tackle forest crime.
Instead, the law gives complete power to forestry administration in an arrangement that permits the timber traders to log the forest. He called the situation “disastrous.”
“The provincial command office has enough forces to solve the problem, but it gives the authority to the forestry administration. If they do not have power, they can do nothing. Therefore, provincial officials cannot get involved,” he said.
Sar Kheng said that changing that power dynamics by changing the forestry law is the only answer.
“So now we want them to amend the law. It must be amended. I ordered [Ministry of Interior Secretary of State] Sork Setha to lead the negotiation for the amendment. But the law has not been amended yet. It is not easy,” he said.
Until then, Sar Kheng offered another way to deal with illegal logging and forest crime: “Sometimes, the stick is needed because this is the national interest,” he said.