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Timber by the numbers

Try Pheap company trucks loaded with lumber in Stung Treng’s Thma Keo commune
Try Pheap company trucks loaded with lumber in Stung Treng’s Thma Keo commune try to negotiate a muddy road in October last year. Heng Chivoan

Timber by the numbers

Cambodia's foremost logging baron exported more than 100,000 cubic metres of timber from Sihanoukville Port last year, likely including a species protected by an international treaty to which the Kingdom is a signatory, an analysis by Global Witness of leaked export records suggests.

The data, obtained by the Post from a source in the transportation industry, show the Try Pheap Group exported an estimated 107,832 cubic metres of timber via the port, an amount the London-based NGO said could be worth between $55 million and $123 million, based on documents it obtained as part of an investigation last year.

In February, a Global Witness report titled The Cost of Luxury detailed how tycoon Try Pheap sits “at the helm of an all-encompassing illegal logging network that relies on the collusion of state officials and supposed enforcement agencies to poach rare trees like Siamese Rosewood”.

Megan MacInnes, head of Global Witness’ land team, yesterday said the data “highlights again the key position … Try Pheap plays in this illegal trade”.

“Surprisingly, it also reveals that the Kin Chung Transportation Company is the only company which Try Pheap exports to, even though they told us they had never had dealings with the Cambodian businessman.”

Documents obtained at the port during the group’s 8-month investigation included export licences for $5.6 million worth of timber headed for the Hong Kong-based Kin Chung Transportation, which is listed as having a capital shareholding of only HK$2 ($0.25) and an address registered to a residential building in the administrative region.

MacInnes said that while the figure of up to $123 million in declared exports may seem large, “with global demand for these threatened timber species soaring, the real price in market destinations such as China is far higher”.

Although the port’s export data does not specify the type of wood exported, “the chance of these shipments containing some Siamese rosewood is high,” she added. “We know this because of the quantities of the timber species seen being loaded onto containers for export at Try Pheap’s depot in Oudong as well as in containers left lying open in Sihanoukville Port.”

In 2013, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), to which Cambodia is a signatory, added Siamese rosewood to its list of species that are banned for export without special permissions. Cambodia issued its own national ban on the collection, transport and processing of Siamese rosewood in February of the same year.

Ty Sokhun, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Agriculture responsible for issuing CITES permits, yesterday confirmed that no exports of Siamese rosewood had been approved. “No companies have requested permits; we have to comply with the agreement,” he said.

Pheap has an exclusive permit to purchase and export all illegal timber confiscated by the authorities, while Forestry Administration officials have previously admitted that Siamese rosewood constitutes significant volumes of such seized wood, Global Witness’ MacInnes added.

A freight truck is loaded with a shipping container at Sihanoukville Port
A freight truck is loaded with a shipping container at Sihanoukville Port last year. Heng Chivoan

Last year, the Post revealed the contents of a two-year investigation, which asserted that the Try Pheap Group had, over a three-year period, illegally logged about $300 million worth of timber, including Siamese rosewood, from the Cardamom Mountains using a permit to clear the Stung Atay hydropower dam reservoir zone.

Lou Kim Chhun, director of Sihanoukville Autonomous Port, yesterday referred questions to customs officials. “We don’t know exactly what is in the containers,” he said.

Customs officials at the port could not be reached.

Several Try Pheap Group representatives contacted by the Post yesterday either declined to comment or did not respond to emailed questions by press time.

All of the shipments from Sihanoukville were sent initially to Hong Kong; however, using container-tracking websites of shipping companies employed to handle the cargo, it appears there were two major end destinations for the wood: Shanghai and Singapore.

When asked about its measures to ensure illicit goods did not pass through its facilities, a spokesman for Hong Kong customs admitted that it relied almost entirely on checking companies’ paperwork and rarely performed physical inspections.

“In general, all cargoes imported into [and] exported from [Hong Kong] via air, land and sea are subject to customs control, which is done primarily through inspection of documents such as manifests. Physical examination of the goods, if necessary, is mainly conducted on a selective basis,” the spokesman said in an email.

Global Witness’ MacInnes, however, said the reliance on paperwork to stop timber smuggling needed to change.

“Authorities there and in mainland China need to urgently halt the import of all Cambodian … luxury timber until regulatory systems are in place to prohibit the import, trading and processing of illegally harvested timber.”

Despite offering some protection to Siamese rosewood, the CITES listing includes a stipulation that superficially processed and “semi-finished” wood can be exported without a permit, according to the Environmental Investigations Agency, leading timber merchants to continue to ship large quantities of the species.

Markus Hardtke of German conservation group ARA said that as Siamese rosewood is virtually extinct in Cambodia following years of industrial logging, targeting of “replacement species” has become a growing problem.

“Replacement species are a big problem, for example, padauk, which is thnong here. ‘Look-alike’ timber species classified as endangered need to be included in the listing, otherwise the trade will just move from subspecies to subspecies, which makes control very difficult,” he said in an email.

Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay, who is vice chair of the National Assembly’s finance commission, pointed to the lack of state revenue generated by forestry – only $9.4 million in last year’s budget.

“It destroys our forest on a very large scale, and what we get back is nothing. This is a crime, a crime that needs to be dealt with seriously,” Chhay said, adding that ministers should be called to answer before parliament. “I think he [Minister of Finance Aun Porn Moniroth] has to answer before parliament. You cannot let this criminal [Pheap] get away with it; to cheat the Khmer nation.”

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