Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Timber by the numbers

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.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MAY TITTHARA

MOST VIEWED

  • Prince Norodom Ranariddh passes away at 77

    Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the second son of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk and former First Prime Minister of Cambodia, has passed away in France at the age of 77. “Samdech Krom Preah Norodom Ranariddh has passed away this morning in France just after 9am Paris-time,”

  • General’s gun smuggling ring busted

    The Military Police sent six military officers to court on November 22 to face prosecution for possession of 105 illegal rifles and arms smuggling, while investigators say they are still hunting down additional accomplices. Sao Sokha, deputy commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and commander of

  • Cambodia, Thailand to discuss border reopening

    Cambodian authorities from provinces along the Cambodia-Thailand border will meet with Thai counterparts to discuss reopening border checkpoints to facilitate travel, transfer of products and cross-border trade between the two countries. Banteay Meanchey provincial deputy governor Ly Sary said on November 22 that the provincial administration

  • More Cambodians studying in US

    The number of Cambodian students studying at US colleges and universities in 2020-21 increased by 14.3 per cent over the previous year despite the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a recent US government report. The 2021 Open Doors report on International Educational Exchange showed that 848 Cambodian students studied

  • Banteay Meanchey gunfight sees 15 Thais arrested, three officers injured

    The Banteay Meanchey Military Police have arrested 15 Thai suspects and their accomplices after a gun battle between two Thai groups caused injuries to three police officers in the early hours of November 21, local authorities said. National Military Police spokesman Eng Hy said that according to

  • PM: Do not defile Tonle Sap swamp forest or else

    Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered police to arrest anyone – including government officials – involved with the deforestation of the flooded forests surrounding the Tonle Sap Lake because it is an area important to the spawning of many species of fish, among other reasons. Speaking in a