A year ago on Sunday, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the start of what sounded like a muscular new crackdown on the illegal timber trade running rampant across eastern Cambodia.
It was hardly the first time he had done it. But this time he paired it with an immediate and unprecedented blanket ban on timber exports to neighboring Vietnam, a trade that had skyrocketed the year before, much of it admittedly unlicensed and untaxed.
Mr. Hun Sen even made a show of giving military police chief Sao Sokha, assigned to head the new task force, access to the military’s aerial firepower and carte blanche to literally blow any resistant loggers to pieces.
“I gave two helicopters,” the prime minister said in February. “I have authorized the firing of rockets without mercy if they resist.”
A year on, the government claims that exports have dried up and that illegal logging and trading in the eastern provinces have mostly been stamped out.
But locals, community groups and NGOs at work in those provinces say the task force has been more show than substance, bearing out early fears that the latest crackdown would go the way of past efforts, making few long-term gains. Some said the campaign had made considerable gains against the illegal timber trade. But most said the trade had slowed only marginally, that it was back to pre-task force levels, or had even picked up.
“The illegal logging has increased in the border provinces,” said Pen Bonnar, senior investigator for land rights and natural resources for rights group Adhoc.
Mr. Bonnar, drawing on reports from Adhoc staff spread out across the provinces, said the government sweeps had merely forced the trade to change shape, driving it under the radar—if only just. Where large trucks once ferried ill-gotten timber in the open, the contraband is now more likely to get divvied up among fleets of vans, cars and motorbikes.
“No stop,” he said. “Now they use the new manner; they use small cars and motorbikes.”
Wildlife Conservation Society country director Ross Sinclair has noticed the shift as well. He said even large-scale logging had started to pick back up after taking a dive inside Mondolkiri’s province’s Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary, where his NGO recently helped the government sell its first forest-based carbon credits to The Walt Disney Company on the promise of avoided forest losses.
“It is hard to determine how much of a decrease has occurred, but certainly in the first months of the task force the impression we have is that the trade had decreased,” he said. “That said, we have observed a shift to more small-scale illegal logging, seeing more moto[s] carrying wood than we saw before. This has continued up until the present day. In recent months, there seems to have also been an increase in large-scale illegal logging.”
Other conservation NGOs active in eastern Cambodia declined to comment for this story or did not reply to requests.
Last month, the Prey Lang Community Network, a volunteer collective named after the sprawling forest in central Cambodia it is committed to protecting, reported finding a 14 percent uptick in logging sites during its latest patrol.
The Prey Lang forest, most of which the government turned into a protected area last year after years of community lobbying, includes large tracts of Kratie and Stung Treng provinces, part of the task force’s jurisdiction.
Network member Hoeun Sopheap said the loggers had shown a knack for knowing just when the task force was about to arrive, suggesting that they were being tipped off.
In Stung Treng, network member Chea Sok Hoeun said he had seen almost none of the task force over the past year and plenty of timber-loaded trucks still leaving the forest, if fewer than before.
“We see about five or six trucks transporting wood from the forest each time,” he said. “In the past, before the task force was created, we used to see 10 to 20 trucks.”
Vietnamese customs data also shows that the timber trade remains strong.
The data, obtained by the U.S. NGO Forest Trends, show that Cambodian timber exports to Vietnam last year were on track to match or surpass 2014 exports, which were the highest in several years except for 2015. The government has dismissed the data, but reporters visiting the border last month found Cambodian soldiers facilitating a thriving local timber trade with Vietnam, and police at roadside checkpoints turning a blind eye.
Observers have seen even less evidence of a crackdown by the courts.
By April, the task force claimed to have seized some 70,000 cubic meters of illegally logged or sourced timber, enough to fill more than 2,000 standard 20-foot shipping containers. All of it was found lying or buried on the property of registered plantations and sawmills.
The government soon sent several related cases to the provincial courts. But as of last week, no one had been arrested or charged in connection with the initial haul.
In Mondolkiri, where the bulk of the 70,000 cubic meters were found, deputy court prosecutor So Sovichea said he could not recall how many cases he and his colleagues were handling. He said the cases were all still under investigation and declined to discuss them.
Heang Sopheak, a prosecutor at the Tbong Khmum Provincial Court, said the same, but added that he expected some of his cases to go to trial next month.
In Kratie, deputy prosecutor Hak Hoan said he had not charged anyone yet, either. He said he had determined that two Chinese-run plantations and one Cambodian businessman—China Dynamic, C&V, and Vun Bun Thai—were probably guilty of timber trafficking ,but was awaiting instructions from the task force on whether to press ahead.
The government often claims not to exercise such control over court cases involving its cronies or critics. But the slow progress the courts are making in these cases is feeding suspicion that the crackdown, as one conservationist put it, is more of a shakedown—meant to rake in more bribes and taxes while rearranging the main players.
In January last year, just before the task force started work, alleged timber trafficker Soeng Sam Ol accused officials of just that. He denied any wrongdoing and accused unnamed officials of demanding payoffs so that they would not accuse him of illegal logging.
Mr. Sam Ol was one of the two timber traders the government openly accused of timber trafficking as the task force was gearing up in January. The other was Lim Bunna.
In October, Environment Minister Say Sam Al said he had recently spoken with Mr. Sam Ol and Mr. Bunna—along with timber tycoon Try Pheap, an adviser to the prime minister—and that all three had agreed to stop their illegal logging.
He effectively admitted their involvement. Yet none of them have been charged, let alone arrested.
Still, military police spokesman Eng Hy defended the task force’s work.
“We have not arrested any [plantation] owners because they are not obvious crimes, and we work following court orders,” he said. “We found the wood on the [plantations], but we did not see the people there.”
The only known timber trafficker who authorities have arrested and charged since last January is Heng Samneang, better known as Yeay Proeung, or Grandma Proeung.
And that was for timber the task force seized in October after she accused journalists on her payroll of ratting her out, and only because she was foolhardy enough to try retrieving some of the wood from a government compound with the help of a few armed thugs.
Mr. Bonnar, of Adhoc, said the latest campaign to stamp out the illegal timber trade, just like past efforts, would achieve nothing lasting if the officials and major players escaped the full force of the law.
“If the government only talks, [doesn’t] take action, no result,” he said. “The officials who don’t take action against forest crimes, they have to go to court.”
He said it was also telling that the government’s Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) was playing no part in the campaign.
“The ACU [has] to dare to bring the high-ranking tycoons and officials to court,” said Mr. Bonnar. But that was unlikely to happen “because the officials involved in the forest crime are very high,” he said. “It’s corruption.”