Authorities in Kompong Thom’s Stong district have confiscated 109 cubic meters of high-quality rosewood worth an estimated $20 million from illegal traders since the beginning of the year, officials said yesterday.
According to Tong Yi, chief of the district Forestry Administration, forestry officials have seized a total of 22,777 assorted pieces of rosewood from 107 vehicles that included Cadillac Escalades, Toyota Land Cruisers, Land Rovers and military vehicles since January. All of the confiscated goods are currently being stored inside a warehouse at an unknown location in Kompong Thom province, and the government now plans to conduct a bidding process to sell the luxury timber with supervision from the Ministry of Finance.
“We have made a request to the Ministry of Finance to auction the rosewood with expectations that it is worth $20 million,” Mr. Yi said, adding that the money would be paid into the national treasury.
“This is our plan, as the price of rosewood is soaring,” he said.
The rosewood that has been confiscated in Stong district is from one of three checkpoints that police have set up across Kompong Thom province to stop vehicles suspected of illegally transporting the luxury timber to Vietnam, where much of it is thought to continue on its journey into China.
The figures show just how much money there is to be made in the illegal logging of rosewood, most of which is felled by Cambodian loggers in Thailand. This year, at least 15 Cambodians have died after being shot by Thai soldiers who patrol Cambodia’s northwest border for illegal loggers.
With much of the woodland in Cambodia having already been deforested, loggers are now venturing further afield in search of the valuable commodity, which has seen dramatic price hikes recently due to its increasing scarcity. But authorities have struggled to clamp down on the problem due to strong connections that have been forged between the military and illegal loggers.
Last month, forestry officials in Siem Reap province confiscated 1.34 cubic meters of smuggled rosewood from RCAF soldiers after a lieutenant colonel held a pistol to one of their heads in hopes of scaring them off. A few weeks later, Prime Minister Hun Sen called on authorities to help stop the illegal trade by reporting cases involving high-ranking officials to the Anti-Corruption Unit or directly to his office.
Observers say that collusion between the military and illegal loggers would point toward the actual amount of rosewood passing through Kompong Thom on the way to Vietnam being much higher.
“I think if we look at reports of the smuggling of rosewood…and the amount of goods that are seized, then the problem is enormous,” said Lao Mong Hay, an independent political analyst. “Over the years, I think, the authorities have not been able to reduce this kind of smuggling. Maybe they have connections somewhere.”
It was unclear yesterday how many arrests have been made following the confiscation of the 109 cubic meters of rosewood in just one of Kompong Thom’s districts. But Mr. Yi of the Forestry Administration said the information would be made available in an end-of-year report on rosewood smuggling due to be released soon.
Chan Soveth, deputy head monitor for rights group Adhoc, questioned why there was no information available on how many arrests had been made. “If the forestry officials can only confiscate rosewood and cars, then they have not done their job,” he said. “Forestry officials must arrest illegal loggers and send them to the court.”