Corruption in Cambodia and demand in Vietnam have in recent months fueled illegal logging at “unprecedented scales” in the protected forests of Ratanakkiri province, according to a new report using undercover investigators.
The U.K.’s Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) says its team found Cambodian authorities colluding with Vietnamese companies to smuggle hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of timber across the border, violating Cambodia’s timber export ban and earning million of dollars in kickbacks in the process.
The industrial-scale timber laundering operation outlined in the report, “Repeat Offender: Vietnam’s persistent trade in illegal timber,” also casts new doubt on the future prospects of a trade scheme the E.U. is negotiating with Hanoi that is meant to ensure Vietnamese timber exports to the bloc are clean.
“This is the single largest log-smuggling operation that we have seen for years,” said Jago Wadley, EIA senior forest campaigner. “Vietnamese state involvement in multi-million-dollar transnational organised timber crime simply cannot be accepted by the international community and absolutely must not be ignored by the E.U.”
The broad outlines of the story are nothing new.
Just over a decade ago, nearly a dozen government officials in Ratanakkiri were convicted in the so-called “Dragon’s Tail” case, an illegal operation that saw hundreds of truckloads of timber moved out of a remote corner of Virachey National Park into Vietnam. Officials estimated that the cabal harvested some $15 million worth of logs by the time it was uncovered in 2004 by the World Bank, which was funding conservation work in the park at the time.
Despite the high-profile bust, The Cambodia Daily found strong evidence of an ongoing illicit timber trade between Ratanakkiri and Vietnam in 2010, and again in 2013.
In 2015, the U.K.’s Global Witness came out with the results of an undercover investigation of its own that found timber magnate Try Pheap running a major illegal logging operation in Virachey and exporting millions of dollars worth of logs to China, much of it through Vietnam.
Responding to the mounting reports, Prime Minister Hun Sen put his national military police chief, General Sao Sokha, in charge of a new task force to stamp out eastern Cambodia’s rampant logging racket in January last year. The general immediately ordered a ban on all timber exports to Vietnam. A few weeks later, the premier gave him the use of two helicopters and carte blanche to fire their rockets at illegal loggers “without mercy.”
Though the government was quick to claim success, evidence that the cross-border trade was still thriving was just as quick to emerge. Rights groups and villagers along the border said cars and trucks packed with timber were still heading to Vietnam almost every night. In December, Daily reporters found soldiers who were tasked with helping seal the border running an illegal timber yard in Kratie province that was selling luxury-grade logs to buyers from Vietnam. Vietnamese customs data obtained by the U.S. NGO Forest Trends says the country imported a total 379,000 cubic meters of timber from Cambodia last year—with the export ban still in place—worth about $181 million.
Yet the government still denied that the border was open for business, dismissing the customs data out of hand.
The EIA’s latest investigation backs up the data, and suggests the real numbers could be even higher. It calls the government’s claims to have tamed the illegal timber trade “an illusion.”
Its investigation found Cambodian authorities in Ratanakkiri flouting the government’s export ban to help fill official import quotas in Vietnam.
In December and January, its investigators found heavy logging around two hotspots: one along the O’Tang River in O’yadaw National Park and reaching into the neighboring Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary; and another around O’Tabok community forest in Virachey, part of a $1 million E.U. project meant to help wean locals off forest products for their survival.
They say in some places they saw up to 200 log-loaded trucks heading to Vietnam each day using unofficial crossings to reach timber depots just across the border.
They estimate that over the course of 55 days, more than 300,000 cubic meters of timber made it to Vietnam along those routes. Using customs documents and invoices they found in Vietnam, they estimate an average price per cubic meter of $250. That would put the total price of the timber that crossed the border during their trips at more than $75 million.
In both hubs EIA says it found the same system at work: Vietnamese timber traders would show up, sometimes with Cambodian military police in tow, and offer them thousands of dollars to log their forest; whether they accepted or not, dozens of loggers would soon flood the area and get to work.
In O’Tabok, the report says, investigators saw scores of logging camps and Vietnamese managers ordering Cambodian soldiers to set up checkpoints around the area to keep unwanted visitors out.
In O’Tang, they found the loggers using makeshift road signs showing drivers which routes to take to which depots across the border.
“Protection from any enforcement actions was ensured by the involvement of local police and military officials,” the report says.
EIA says one of the main Cambodian traders was the wife of the chief of a local border police station, but it declined to name them.
Once in Vietnam, EIA says, the logs were laundered into the country’s legal timber trade under an official quota system set up by the Gia Lai Province People’s Committee last last year.
EIA—an independent, international organization committed to investigating and exposing environmental crimes—says it obtained government records outlining the scheme, including a September 30 decision allowing for the import of 300,000 cubic meters of timber until May 30, to be divvied up among 16 companies in the province, “in blatant contravention of Cambodian law.”
Trade and customs data obtained by EIA name the 16 companies and their shares of the quotas—and three Cambodian suppliers: the Pich Rithsey Company; Phat Sok Chea Trading Development; and Wood Innovation & Import Export. None of the companies are currently registered with the Cambodian Commerce Ministry and none could be reached.
Posing as timber traders, EIA’s investigators ventured into Vietnam in February and March and tracked the timber from the depots along the border to factories in Gia Lai and Ho Chi Minh City and to the port town of Quy Nhon.
In Gia Lai, they spoke with a trader, Phan Yen Vui. She said her network paid off senior border officials in Ratanakkiri every year who let them log the province and tipped them off to spot inspections.
In Quy Nhon, a logistics agent for the Hung Anh Company, identified only as Mr. Phong, said Cambodian officials were earning millions of dollars in kickbacks.
“The under-the-table money to the Cambodian side to get the permit to exploit in a forest area is a big amount,” the report quotes him saying. “They still need to give money in order to be allowed to exploit in an area with big trees, high value timbers. For example, they will have to give $1-2 million.”
Traders said the Vietnamese government would tax the imports and that officials also take an extra cut, about $45 per cubic meter. For the full 300,000 cubic meters, that’s $13.5 million in bribes alone.
Officials at Vietnam’s agriculture and foreign affairs ministries did not immediately reply to requests for comment about the report on Sunday. Officials at the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh could not be reached.
Cambodia’s environment minister, Say Sam Al, who has repeatedly denied the existence of an illegal timber trade of any significance for the past year, declined to comment on the report or to say whether he would be investigating the findings.
“We can’t comment on the report because we’re still checking,” he said. “The investigators didn’t work with us, so we have to take some time to check the report.”
Gen. Sokha, the man in charge of Cambodia’s illegal logging crackdown, and his spokesman, Brigadier General Eng Hy, could not be reached.
Major General Mao Phalla, spokesman for the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces infantry, flatly rejected the findings.
“It’s a baseless accusation,” he said. “We have strict discipline.”
“If they do it, we will take action against them,” he added.
Ratanakkiri governor Thong Savorn declined to comment.
His deputy, Nhem Sam Oeun, the provincial spokesman, admitted to “some” illegal exports but downplayed the scale of the problem and blamed it on tough terrain.
“If you have ever visited those areas you will know how hard it is. They’re deep in the forest, with streams and valleys that make it hard for our officials to patrol,” he said. “It’s not easy.”
He also conceded that “some” officials were taking bribes.
“I won’t deny it, but we are paying attention to the problem,” he said.
Local conservationists say the EIA report is spot on.
Cambodian Human Rights Task Force director Ouch Leng said his own team of investigators had found the same rampant logging and export.
“It’s true,” he said. “Based on our investigation, loggers are still logging illegally in Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces, especially in the protected areas.”
He said they saw too many trucks to count.
“It’s still happening because of corruption and because officials are working with the timber dealers,” he said. “If any government officials deny it, I will take them to the border to see for themselves.”
Marcus Hardtke, a veteran investigator of Cambodia’s timber trade, said the report exposed the government’s denials to be little more than “propaganda.”
“Hun Sen’s rockets are firecrackers: lots of noise, very little substance,” he said. “The government is either unable to control what’s happening in the country’s forests, or these activities are given tacit approval from higher levels. Logging seems like a nasty addiction of these people. They just can’t stop until they have turned Cambodia into shrubland.”
Mr. Hardtke said the recent instances of logging bore similarities to the Dragon’s Tail case. While little may have changed, he said, the area was much less remote now than it was then, meaning officials in Phnom Penh were more likely to know about it.
“The Vietnamese keep plundering Cambodia’s forests with impunity,” he said. “Will there be consequences for provincial officials involved? Or will the government continue the strategy of childish denials?”
Just last month, the prime minister arranged a royal pardon for an officials charged in absentia in the Dragon’s Tail case, then-Ratanakkiri governor Kham Khoeun, who spent more than a decade on the run and did not serve one day of a 17-year prison sentence.
The report should also be a major concern for the E.U., which has for the past few years been wrangling with Vietnam over a trade scheme that would guarantee the country’s timber exports to the bloc are legally sourced.
Officials are set to sign off on the latest step in the process on Thursday in Brussels, though the EIA says plenty of work lies ahead. It’s urging the E.U. to make sure a final deal specifically forbids the abuses it uncovered in Ratanakkiri and to work with Cambodia to investigate logging in its project areas in Virachey.
A spokesperson for the E.U. agency running the program said no one was available to comment.
George Edgar, the E.U.’s ambassador to Cambodia, said the bloc’s project in Virachey expired in 2015.
“However, the logging described in the EIA report is of serious concern, given the importance of Virachey in terms of biodiversity and in terms of the livelihoods of local communities,” he said.
“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 the future.”
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