Legal timber exports to Vietnam – the bulk of them rosewood – soared between 2013 and 2015, with the volume of logs exported increasing by a factor of 142 and seven times as much sawn wood passing across the border, according to a report by a team of researchers given access to Vietnamese customs data.
In 2013, the combined value of timber legally imported by Vietnam from Cambodia was $45.7 million. By 2015, it was $379 million. The report puts the astronomic leap in recorded imports down to deregulation of the trade by the Vietnamese government in January 2014, which abolished the requirement for traders to apply for import and export permits.
Lead author of the report To Xuan Phuc conceded that the data his team used did not account for illegally smuggled timber, which has long been a problem.
The lion’s share of Cambodian timber exports to Vietnam was Burmese rosewood, accounting for more than 100,000 cubic metres of sawn timber exports in 2015 alone, compared to 2013, when just 8,400 cubic metres were recorded by Vietnamese customs officers.
The precious wood has become scarce in Cambodia in recent years, and Seng Bunra, executive director of Conservation International, said he doubted most of the 100,000 cubic metres originated in Cambodia.
“I feel much of the rosewood did not come from Cambodia. I don’t know where it’s from, but on Cambodia’s border with Thailand, they are always shooting people over rosewood and illegal logging in Thailand. So we feel that maybe the rosewood comes from Thailand to Cambodia and on to Vietnam,” Bunra said yesterday.
Eight Cambodians were killed last year while logging rosewood in Thailand.
Bunra also questioned the accuracy of the customs data the report was based on.
“How about the other years? We don’t know. Even the [customs] record, is it the real record? Maybe it’s more than that.”
Phuc said the research took place in the context of ongoing negotiations with the EU for Vietnam to be awarded Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) certification, which would give FLEGT-licensed timber exporters in Vietnam access to the European market.
The negotiations are due to conclude later this year, Phuc said, and when they do, Vietnam will be expected to begin the process of establishing mechanisms to ensure the legality of all wood passing in and out of its borders. However, Phuc said this does not mean imports of illegally felled timber will stop overnight.
“The ultimate goal of the FLEGT process is to eliminate illegal timber, but when you look at the huge increase in exports, it means the FLEGT negotiations have not had an impact on the timber trade, yet,” Phuc said.
Phuc and his fellow researchers were baffled at the discovery that Cambodia’s export of logs to Vietnam had increased so drastically, up from 405 cubic metres in 2013 to 57,000 last year.
“There’s a ban on the export of logs, we don’t understand why there’s still a flow of logs out of the country,” he said. “We talk a lot about stringent policing but in reality there’s limitations to the effectiveness of that policy.”
Environment Ministry spokesman Sao Sopheap was unreachable for comment.