[Vietnamization: Environmental destruction; Logging, Border, Military] Long plagued by illegal logging, Cambodia faces accusations of corruption
Long plagued by illegal logging, Cambodia faces accusations of corruption
Mongabay | 12 June 2017
On the heels of a damning report about alleged cross-border collusion in the sale of illegally logged timber to Vietnam, Cambodia’s government has promised to clean up its act.
Long known as a hotspot for rapid and largely illegal deforestation for logging, Cambodia was singled out in a May 2017 EIA report.
The report was the result of months of undercover investigations which found that from November 2016, more than 300,000 cubic metres (nearly 10.6 million cubic feet) of timber have been illegally felled in a wildlife sanctuary and two protected areas in Cambodia.
Most of the timber was sold to Vietnam and generated $13 million in kickbacks from Vietnamese timber traders.
Environmental experts believe that a much-publicized crackdown on illegal logging launched in Cambodia in early 2016 was little more than theatrics.
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – It was June 1999, and Cambodia’s then-Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Chhea Song, was addressing a regional symposium on forestry law enforcement in Phnom Penh.
“The…action of the [Royal Government of Cambodia]…has resulted in almost 95 percent reduction in illegal felling [of trees] and the efforts are being continued. The small-scale illegal operators, particularly the ox-buffalo cart owners account for the remaining 5 percent,” he said in his speech.
Describing the speech in his book, “Governing Cambodia’s Forests,” author Andrew Cock says Song was able to make such a claim because the government at that time was, “Adopting the perspective that any type of extractive activity that was in some way authorized by the leadership was by definition legal.” In other words, logging being carried out by concessionaires was being ignored.
In the nearly two decades since that speech, things have arguably gone from bad to worse.
Cambodia’s logging problems are so serious that in 2014,Global Forest Watch saidthe rate of deforestation in the country between 2011 and 2014 had accelerated at a faster pace than anywhere else in the world, and that four times the amount of tree cover had been lostduring that period. The scale of deforestation that has been seen across the country can be seen insatellite images of one areaon December 31, 2000 and then again October 30, 2015.
So it came as little surprise when, in May 2017, the London-based Environmental Investigation Agencyreleased the results of a probeinto illegal logging and smuggling that laid bare the extent of the collusion on both sides of the Cambodian-Vietnamese border. Since November 2016, more than 300,000 cubic metres (nearly 10.6 million cubic feet) of timber have been illegally felled in a wildlife sanctuary and two protected areas in Cambodia, some of which receive EU funding. Officials have reportedly made at least $13 million in kickbacks from Vietnamese timber traders.
Once over the border — despite a ban on timber exports — Vietnamese officials would also receive hefty bribes to alter their quotas and give the illegal wood a legal status, then slap a tax on it. Just days after the investigation was published, Vietnam and the EU completed their negotiations and formally agreed on the text of a would-be Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA).
Full ratification of the VPA would ensure, in principle, that wood exported from Vietnam to the EU has been legally felled and that its source is verifiable. However, there is a concern among environmentalists that the establishment of the VPA could legitimize the export of illegally logged timber if its provenance is not properly monitored.
Given that so much of this timber already crosses into Vietnam from Cambodia, that gives conservationist Marcus Hardtke, Southeast Asia coordinator for German conservation group ARA, serious pause.
“I’m very concerned, because then the deal would mean nothing if illegal timber is being brought to the EU,” he said. “As long as they bring timber in from Cambodia, Vietnamese timber is not safe.”
In an email, George Edgar, ambassador and head of the EU delegation in Cambodia, described the EIA logging allegations as being of “serious concern,” particularly with regard to the impact on biodiversity and local livelihoods.
“We would encourage the authorities of Cambodia and Vietnam to urgently investigate the reported illegal activities and take firm action against individuals and companies found to be involved in illegal logging; and to take steps to prevent any such activity in future,” Edgar wrote.
In the wake of the EIA probe, the Cambodian government vowed to investigate. But there is already plenty of evidence indicating that Cambodia’s best alleged previous efforts to clean house have failed.
In January 2016, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the establishment of a task force mandated to crack down on illegal logging and the flow of timber across the border to Vietnam, where it’s typically processed and sent onward to China, the EU and the U.S. But between the EIA report and other investigations, the successes touted by this squad – including a claim by one government official that the issue was solved just a few months in – are highly questionable.
Hardtke describes the notion of the 2016 crackdown as little more than a “political charade” designed to entrench elite control over the sector and flush smaller players out.
“It’s just another crackdown with a few activities that temporarily scare the small operators, but it’s more like it always was in past crackdowns,” Hardtke said in an interview. “It’s more of a shakedown than a crackdown, because the purpose was always to get rid of competition and monopolize the illicit trade.”
The task force, which is still in operation, is headed by National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha. In 2004 and again in 2007, he was named by Global Witness as a central figure in the illicit logging and smuggling trade; an allegation he has strenuously denied.
Seemingly eager to show how serious and effective it was, the task force set about conducting a series of busts around Cambodia early on.
By mid-April 2016, national military spokesman Eng Hy announced that the smuggling issue had been solved. He cited a haul of 70,000 cubic metres (nearly 2.5 million square feet) of wood that had been seized in a series of busts and cases brought against 51 companies and individuals. He repeated that claim again in September the same year, insisting that no trees had been felled since the crackdown began, according to national newspaperCambodia Daily.
Although the task force did make seizures during its initial crackdown, Hardtke said that there are those who were not subject to the same treatment. He said it represents a missed opportunity to target the key perpetrators gutting Cambodia’s forests.
That includes the likes of businessman Lim Bunna, who had 259 cubic metres (9,156 square feet) of wood seized from a warehouse in Tbong Khmum province in January. He has not been arrested. A week after the crackdown on his warehouse, he was granted an Economic Land Concession inside the Phnom Penh Wildlife Sanctuary, along with timber baron Try Pheap. In fact, the number of arrests between January and October was relatively small compared to the number ofactual busts.
There was also a strange sequence of events connected to the seized 70,000 cubic metres of timber. It was never held centrally, and was then auctioned off in two lots; 9,800 of the first 10,000 cubic metres was bought in August by Ing Sithat Virak under his D.T.C. Group, a rubber company, which was re-registered with the Ministry of Commerce on April 5, 2016,according to its database.
Three days later, on April 8, 2016, a logistics company called V.Energy was re-registered with the Ministry. Ung Sitat Vila, the owner of that firm, which the database says is a transportation company, bought the remaining 60,000 cubic metres at auction in September for $14.8 million. The Cambodia Daily quoted Soung Mengkea, a spokesman for the Ministry of Finance, as saying that Sitat Vila sought a sawmill license to process the wood.
In both auctions, the buyers were the only entities bidding for the lots they ended up with. They both paid over the asking price, the Cambodia Daily reported.
Other details of the sales remain nearly impossible to confirm given the opaque climate of government disclosure in Cambodia.
For the past year, as they have always done, Hardtke and other investigators have continued monitoring illegal forest activities.
“We have seen several sawmills, both new and old, in the vicinity of the forest, where there is sourcing on a daily basis, entirely illegally, from protected areas,” he said. On one occasion, 40 large trucks were spotted, at night time, “heading for the Vietnamese border.”
An independent investigation conducted by Mongabay was unable to establish the trail of timber on the Vietnamese side of the border.
In December, reporters from the Cambodia Daily entered a black-market timber yard that turned out to be an unmarked military base in Kratie province. Reporters cited allegations from one witness who said police only stop logging transport vehicles in order to receive bribes, before allowing them to continue their journeys.
“[Logging is] often linked to the military and the so-called elite,” Hardtke said. “We don’t see the pattern of behavior changing. They actively undermine every effort, while maintaining to do [logging].”
Josie Cohen, a senior campaigner for Global Witness, said in an interview that she has her suspicions about the intentions of the task force’s establishment.
“One thing that screams cover up is the extent of the continuing military involvement in the logging industry,” Cohen said. “The decision to put Sao Sokha in charge, and for him to remain in charge of this expanded task force indicates that there is no genuine intention to crack down on the trade.”
Cohen added that the tactic is nothing new.
“The Cambodian government are strategic and clever and have a history of using initiatives like this to target particularOknhaswho have fallen out of favor,” Cohen said.Oknhais the honorific bestowed upon those who make a $100,000 donation to the government. They are also supposed to continue working toward the development of the country, such as with the construction of roads and schools, for example.
“I think this plays a helpful role for the government: they look good ahead of the elections, but use it to crack down on a few people who have fallen out of favor” Cohen said. “[Prime Minister] Hun Sen’s system of patronage is based on a carrot and stick approach.”
From the start of 2016, the flow of wood cut in Cambodia continued across the border into Vietnam. Checkpoint data obtained by conservation group Forest Trends shows that more than $115 million worth of logs and sawnwood was entered into the books by Vietnamese officials between January and September of 2016, further calling into question the Cambodian government’s claims that their much-publicized 2016 crackdown was a success.
The Phnom Penh Post used the same data after being given it separately, too. Forest Trends does publish border data on its website, but publicly the last report looks at the 2013-2015 period.
During that period, 59,128 cubic metres of logs from Cambodia, worth $15,575,452, were registered at 11 separate Vietnamese border crossings. There was a spike in movement in January 2016, the same month the crackdown in Cambodia was announced, with 23,220 cubic metres of logs worth $7,065,118 being registered by Vietnamese border officials, the data said.