An Illicit Industry Thrives in Cardamom Mountains

In late March, foresters and military police working with Conservation International apprehended 11 men and one woman from northern Vietnam for forest crimes in Pursat province’s portion of the Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary.

The provincial court charged and jailed the 12, and the case prosecutor said at the time that they had confessed to cutting the M’reah Prew tree, a luxury hardwood, and boiling its stump and roots to extract valuable oil.

The 12 were never tried and have since disappeared from detention, several forestry investigators have said.

The case’s prosecutor, Kong Bin, said Tuesday that the court released the Vietnamese suspects on bail four months ago and their trial date has not been set.

Myriad cases have shown Cambodian authorities tend to hold suspects for lesser offenses than forest crimes for at least a six-month pre-trial detention period.

A previous Samkos sweep, initiated by CI in November 2002, found nine oil-production sites, which included about 20 of the massive vats used for distillation. The sites’ operators escaped, but the identity cards they left behind showed many of them had come from Nam Dinh province outside Hanoi, according to a report by CI’s recently departed director, David Mead, who stepped down.

About the same time, Mead wrote a letter to Chan Sarun, the minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, and, among others, co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng and Department of Forestry and Wildlife Director Ty Sokun.

The letter detailed CI’s efforts to halt exploitation of M’reah Prew and expressed concern that “foreign workers have been found in the Protected Forest, providing the technical advice necessary to allow this illegal operation to continue.”

Mead said recently that the letters’ recipients never responded.

On a Nov 22 flight over the Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary, six M’reah Prew production sites, each with multiple steaming vats, were spotted in a valley near the border of Pursat’s Veal Veng district and Battambang province’s Samlot district.

On Nov 15, several vats were seen sitting on a curb in Battambang town.

Despite efforts by CI and other conservationists, the M’reah Prew business flourishes.
“M’reah Prew, the most famous spiritual tree in the country, is leaving,” Mead said a few weeks ago, before returning to his native Australia.

“Tree by tree, it is leaving as we sit here.”

M’reah Prew is respected for the spirit that some believe inhabits flora of its towering stature. Men generally avoid urinating on mature members of the species, for fear its spirit will inflame the penis.

The use of the tree’s oil is not known for sure, Mead said.

But he wrote in a report that was released earlier this year that the commodity is viewed with suspicion, as it is similar to safrole—oil of the Camphor tree—of which Vietnam is the world’s largest exporter.

Camphor trees are rare now in Vietnam, and cutting them there has been outlawed since 1992 by decree of Vietnam’s government.

Safrole is used in food flavorings, perfumes, insecticides and the recreational drug Ecstasy produced in the region, Mead wrote.

The M’reah Prew oil, which burns the skin and eats rubber, sold in 2002 for $2.30 a liter at a remote market in the Cardamoms, $2.60 a liter in Pursat town, and $3 in Phnom Penh, Mead said in his letter to Chan Sarun.

It is believed to fetch far greater prices in Vietnam. The evidence of foreigners exploiting protected forests and the lack of discernible action by authorities suggests high profits.

Mead has no doubt the stuff is valuable. “There was so much big money involved, we got corrupted,” he said.

Bribes were paid, about $250 per pot per month, to DFW officers, military police and a member of the CI staff. About 25 men were fired in mid-March, Mead said.

Aside from destroying the M’reah Prew trees themselves, the refining operations take surrounding trees for firewood and wildlife for food. Forest is cleared for trails.

Another victim is the Cardamom plant—an important source of income for locals—which grows in the Samkos sanctuary and for which the surrounding mountains are named.

According to Mead, one village chief said he expects the next Cardamom harvest to render only a third of its normal spice yield, largely due to M’reah Prew exploitation.

After nine years here, almost four of which he spent with CI trying to protect the Central Cardamom Mountains, Mead left Cambodia near the end of last month.

A day before his departure, the 56-year-old former military colonel gave some parting comments, stressing the importance of the forests to individual Cambodians.

“The forests are very much part of Cambodians’ heritage,” Mead said. “There is a spiritual aspect to the loss.”

He recalled patrolling the former Grand Atlantic Timber concession in Koh Kong province. He said that even though CI’s team denied local villagers the forest products that they were accustomed to harvesting, the villagers had told them they preferred prohibition to Grand Atlantic Timber’s rapacious logging.

He dismissed the World Bank’s approach of trying to “retro-fit” the logging concessions with international standards. “Concessionaires are not interested in 25-year sustainable plans,” he said.

But throughout the moratoriums on concession logging and timber transportation, trees have steadily disappeared.

“The price of timber is as low as it has ever been,” he said.

The primary reason is no secret, Mead said.

“We’ve got to get the [military] generals out of the forest,” he said. “Otherwise the resources will leave.”

“These guys are very proficient as foresters, because they’ve been doing it a long time.”

Mead spoke of accompanying, in his role as the Australian Embassy defense attache, RCAF’s 1994 dry-season offensive against Khmer Rouge-held Pailin. He said there was a second-in-command, a procurement officer, whose job it was to help feed and finance the soldiers. Timber was available.

“They weren’t well paid, so they tended to live off the land, and that hasn’t really changed,” Mead said.

“It’s the generals that worry me,” he said, “because of the patron-client system.”

RCAF has about 110,000 soldiers and 400 generals on the books.

Mead recalled telling General Bun Seng, commander of Military Region 5, that in four or five years all valuable timber will be gone from his jurisdiction in the northwest.

Bun Seng didn’t disagree, Mead said.

He went on to say he doesn’t expect any “real forests” to remain in Cambodia in 10 years. “Yes, they will be green as seen by satellite, but there will be no worthwhile timber left.”

Decisions must be made now, Mead said. He recommended the establishment of a semi-independent authority, “one with power and capability and some sort of judicial powers to prosecute under the forestry law.”

The Forestry Administration, as it stands, either cannot or will not do the job, Mead said. He cited some examples.

He said that on Nov 14, he reported a sawmill in Kompong Speu province’s Kirirom National Park to DFW task force Director Rath Sovannara. When the site was inspected seven days later, the sawmill and camp had been dismantled and removed. There were no signs of the destruction that the authorities are meant to inflict on illegal sawmills. Only a small stack of sawn timber remained.

In another case, a Pursat province forestry official admitted to knowing of timber being loaded onto railroad cars at the Bamnak village depot in Krakor district. He said that it was an insignificant amount so he had ignored it, Mead said.

Again, one can explain forest degradation by looking at the wages of government employees, Mead said.

Instead of enforcing the law, they choose to profit from it, supplementing their official pittances, he said.

Locals harvesting timber in Kompong Speu’s Oral district were infuriated when a CI team confiscated their logs. They accused the foresters and military police of stealing their income like all the other officials. They complained that the other officials, just down the road, were waiting for their bribes.

“We had to explain that we were prosecuting the law. We were not merely taxing the law,” Mead said.

“Basically, anyone with a gun,” is liable to look for a share of the illicit timber trade, he said.

Logs continue to stream out of forests nationwide, but Mead and CI have managed to maintain the central Cardamoms.

There is poaching, but little logging, he said.

One forestry NGO representative called Mead’s work commendable, but warned that strong law enforcement in the central Cardamoms will put more pressure on Cambodia’s other remaining forests. Organizations working in those areas will face tougher challenges due to Mead’s success, the representative said.

Aside from discouraging Cambodia’s loggers, Mead completed a 30-year military career when he served as defense attache to the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh in the 1990s. He has also spent time in Cambodia as a poet, photographer and lapidary.

(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)

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