Despite a ban on timber exports and the government’s repeated declaration that “large-scale” logging has been stopped, Vietnamese customs data compiled by watchdog Forest Trends show a significant increase in the import of Cambodian logs and sawn wood in 2017.
The data show that some 163,071 cubic metres of Cambodian logs were exported to Vietnam in 2017, a 17 percent increase on the year before. The value of exports jumped 21 percent to $40 million.
The figures for sawn wood, or lumber, meanwhile, reflect an even more “substantial” increase, in particular during the dry season, according to Forest Trends senior policy analyst Phuc Xuan To. The data show a near 60 percent jump from 171,306 cubic metres in exports to 272,693 cubic metres, and a near-$25 million increase in value to more than $173 million.
Xuan To said in an email that three border crossings saw the highest transport of logs in the first half of 2017: the Le Thanh checkpoint, which connects to Ratanakkiri’s O’Yadav district; Bo Y, which connects to Virachey National Park via a road passing through Laos; and Hoa Lu, which connects to Kratie province.
Cambodian authorities have maintained that large-scale logging ceased last year after a crackdown and announcement of an export ban of timber to Vietnam in January 2016.
“Cambodia’s ban on exports of timber and wood products is clearly meaningless for the dozen or so companies that appear to control all exports to Vietnam,” Jago Wadley, a Senior Forest Campaigner for EIA wrote by email. The organisation found that at the end of 2016 and start of 2017, a coordinated campaign among Vietnamese companies and officials on both side of the border resulted in the export of some 350,000 cubic metres of timber in just five months.
“Vietnamese government institutions at both central and provincial levels authorised the issuance of import quotas for wood that could not be legally exported from Cambodia, established extraordinary border crossings to facilitate the smuggling, and taxed the proceeds of crime,” he wrote.
“The new data just shows Vietnam’s government has continued to tax the proceeds of Cambodian crimes.”
A breakdown of the customs data by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) from October 2016 through September 2017 by wood species shows that the most heavily targeted is Xylia dolabriformis Benth, known as sokram in Cambodia.
The luxury wood accounts for some 21 percent of the import volume for that period. Meanwhile about 15 percent was Keruing timber, commonly used to manufacture plywood, with a similar volume being recorded as the luxury wood known locally as thnong.
Eng Hy, spokesman for the Military Police, who chairs the government’s anti-logging task force, was unreachable yesterday.
Environment Minister Say Samal declined to comment unless presented with “an official letter or data”, and ministry spokesman Sao Sopheap said that because the data were compiled by Forest Trends, and did not come directly from the Vietnamese government, “verification is needed before conclusion”. The ministry has previously disputed customs data published by Forest Trends and EIA and made claims that it is politicised.
Speaking at a luncheon held by the business group EuroCham Cambodia in January, Minister Samal repeated the claim that only “small-scale” logging remained, pointing specifically to Mondulkiri’s Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary near the Vietnamese border as a success story.
Just last week three forest patrollers there were gunned down, allegedly by border police and soldiers colluding with a cross-border logging operation.
The park’s director, Kong Putheara, downplayed the extent of logging in the area. “Only the other day, there was a case that three men were shot dead, and that’s it. Besides that, there is nothing going on,” he said.
In an email this week, Goldman Prize-winning environmentalist Ouch Leng said the cross-border trade with Vietnam is the “main cause of deforestation in Cambodia”. Leng called on the EU to discontinue its imports of wood from Vietnam, alleging that timber smuggled from Cambodia is re-exported to EU markets, thus embroiling Europe in environmental crimes that are the result of “systematic corruption from [the] bottom to [the] national level”.