In mid March, a UN team of military observers patrolling a forest trail in northeastern
Cambodia came across a man carrying a battery pack and wearing a hard hat equipped
with a headlight.
When asked what he was doing, the man replied he was looking for his lost water buffalo.
For the two U.N. officers, it was another piece of data to send to their superiors
in Phnom Penh which could indicate illegal logging along the Vietnamese border.
For the locals of Mondulkiri, where many of the residents openly admit they are employed
in the illicit trade, it was just one more episode in the bizarre cat-and-mouse game
that goes on between the U.N. military observers (UNMOs) and loggers flouting a U.N.-imposed
ban on the export of logs.
The United Nations ordered the moratorium in December, ostensibly to help conserve
Cambodia's forest lands, but also as a way of increasing pressure on the hard-line
Khmer Rouge faction to rejoin the faltering peace plan.
Since the ban came into effect on Jan 1 and further restrictions imposed on the export
of sawn timber in February, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia
(UNTAC) has identified the Khmer Rouge and the Phnom Penh administration as the major
violators of the ban.
Evidence uncovered by UNMOs in Keo Sima district in southern Mondulkiri, Cambodia's
second largest and least populated province, suggests the ban has forced loggers
to move their activities to the night time.
Since they were deployed in on Feb. 10, the Keo Sima UNMOs, who declined to be identified,
have yet to find a loaded logging truck attempting to cross the border. But they
have found large stockpiles of wood throughout the jungle, at times consisting of
more than 20 logs, some up to 20 meters long and 3 meters wide, trimmed, stacked,
coded and ready for shipment.
They have also found three unofficial crossing points into Vietnam and some 60 unmapped
roads, many freshly cut and in better condition than the main road to the border.
"There are no villagers in there, the roads go nowhere so we are led to believe
that they are being used for logging," one of the officers said.
The UNMOs said the logging going on in eastern Cambodia is on a much smaller scale
than in the west of the war-torn country, where Thai timber companies have clear-felled
large areas concessioned off by the Khmer Rouge.
"It is not like South America where they slash and burn whole areas. Here they
come in and select and mark individual trees which they will take out later,"
The most sought after trees include rosewood and teak.
"The problem is they cut the wood wet and ship it wet, which warps the wood
and causes it to lose much of its value," the UNMO noted.
All the four warring factions in Cambodia blame each other for illegal logging and
routinely report the violations to the United Nations. Vietnam also says it has closed
its borders to the import of raw logs from Cambodia.
But locals in Mondulkiri say it is an open secret that most of the logging is carried
out by Vietnamese for Vietnamese companies.
"If you want to log in Mondulkiri you have to approach one of two big businessmen
who will act as agents with the provincial authorities," said a Khmer employed
by UNTAC as an interpreter in the province.
"Once an agreement is struck the government will provide CPAF (Cambodian People's
Armed Forces) troops to protect them. The cutting is done by Vietnamese. The CPAF
troops themselves don't cut trees," he said.
But a policeman at the border check point to Vietnam said he had allowed several
log-laden government army trucks to pass through during the daylight since the ban
The guard, who mans a red and white barrier beam weighted at one end with a large
unexploded shell of Vietnam War vintage explained the local soldiers hadn't been
paid since last October.
"They have to eat and they have families to feed," he said. As he was speaking
a nearby government soldier shouldered his AK-47 and shot a parrot out of tree for
The Khmer Rouge controls an estimated 20 percent of Mondulkiri province but local
villagers said the faction were more interested in logging than politics.
"They never really bother us. They are not interested in the election, the only
thing they care about is logging," said Meuk Si Lat from Chhnang village, which
is deep inside Khmer Rouge-held territory in southeastern Mondulkiri.
Despite the apparent relaxed atmosphere that surrounds the illegal logging, patrolling
the area is not without its dangers.
An UNMO patrol was investigating a logging trail in March when they were surprised
by gunmen suspected to be Khmer Rouge soldiers.
The bandits fired shots around the feet of the UNMO team which included a Uruguayan
major, Chinese captain and three Uruguayan soldiers as escorts.
"When they aimed a B-40 (rocket launcher) at us, we said 'OK'," one of
the UNMOs said with his hands raised in a reenactment of their willingness to cooperate.
The bandits robbed the soldiers of three machine guns, a pistol, radios and personal
The following week the Khmer Rouge returned the submachine guns and asked the UNMOs
for a U.S. $1,000 donation for their assistance in recovering the lost weapons from
The radios and pistols were not returned.
Later that month UNMOs found two bodies, one burned, lying along forest trails. While
an investigation has yet to ascertain whether the two murders were related to illegal
logging, politics or were simple acts of crime the discovery adds to the air of lawlessness
in the province.
The UNMOs in Keo Sima liken their job to that of forest rangers.
While they have powers of arrest they see their role more as that of observers and
gatherers of information.
"It is not going to do much good to arrest the man on the ground, the guy with
a chain say in his hand or the guy driving the bulldozer. Our main objective is to
gather [intelligence] and let Phnom Penh work out the big picture."
The officers said that while they get little support from higher authorities in their
fight against illegal logging, it is a position they understand and support.
"It's a question of prioritisation and resources," one said.
"Monitoring cease-fire violations is far more important than trying to stop
a guy dragging a log across the border," he said
Nevertheless, the two officers are confident they are having an impact on the illegal
logging. They cite the recently employed tactic of loggers of cutting down trees
across the forest trails to hinder the UNMOs patrols.
But at the same time they note that there whole duty has a sense of the absurd about
In neighboring Kratie province, an American company is legally felling trees and
exporting timber to the United States.
"Technically, if they set up a sawmill and get a legal permit to cut timber,
there is nothing we could do stop them-as long as they had a licence-because the
moratorium only applies to raw logs not processed wood," one of the officers
"But don't go and tell them that."