Government auctions of illegally logged timber are likely to once again become a regular revenue stream for the state, according to government spokesmen, after Prime Minister Hun Sen briefly flirted with the idea of finally doing away with a controversial practice that some say only fuels more logging.
For years, the government had been selling off the timber it seized from illegal loggers in secretive auctions that were benefiting a handful of wealthy and well-connected traders, first and foremost timber baron Try Pheap, a personal adviser to the prime minister. The man heading the auctions was one of the prime minister’s personal assistants, Eang Sophalleth.
Though the auctions are mandated by law, Mr. Hun Sen said in April that they were a thing of the past, publicly acknowledging that they had failed to curb illegal logging and announcing that seized wood would be given over to the Education Ministry to build teacher housing and other necessary structures. But the prime minister reversed course that same month, putting to bid the 70,000 cubic meters of timber seized by a special logging task force he created in January.
Since the last of those 70,000 cubic meters were seized in April, though, authorities have continued nabbing trucks packed with ill-gotten logs across the country.
On Thursday, National Military Police spokesman Eng Hy, whose boss, General Sao Sokha, heads the special task force, said they would be asking the government to keep the auctions going.
“The [task force] plans to send a request to the government asking for more auctions for the additional wood, but I don’t know yet when the request will be [made],” he said.
Brigadier General Hy, who also sat on the committee set up to auction off the 70,000 cubic meters, which went for over $14 million, said he did not know how much new timber authorities were currently sitting on.
Environment Minister Say Sam Al, the auction committee’s deputy chairman, referred questions to Soung Mengkea, an undersecretary of state at the Finance Ministry who oversaw the sales. Mr. Mengkea said he did not know what the government would do with the new timber it seized.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said the request for additional auctions was likely to be approved.
“I think the choice of the government is to keep doing auctions,” he said.
Environmental protection groups say timber auctions only encourage more illegal logging by creating a financial incentive for the government to keep on seizing timber, something it can’t do if the illegal logging stops.
They say that in some countries it also serves to merely launder illegally logged wood into the legal timber market, particularly in places like Cambodia where people buying it are suspected of being the same people who had it cut down. Mr. Pheap, who had been winning most of Cambodia’s timber auctions until last year, was widely suspected of being the most prolific illegal logger in the country, a claim his company has consistently denied.
Mr. Siphan said the government used to burn seized timber, as some of the protection groups recommend, but was criticized for squandering wood that could be used to build things or sold to help grow the state’s coffers.
He said future auctions would only be for high-grade timber, with the revenue from the sales going to the Education Ministry. Less valuable species, he added, would be used to build schools, desks and other furniture. And unlike before, Mr. Siphan said, buyers would no longer be allowed to export the timber they buy to foreign markets, where it can often make them more money.
Judging by recent experience, though, the government may struggle to find enough buyers for actual, competitive auctions.
Mr. Pheap bowed out of the auctions the government organized for the 70,000 cubic meters of illegally logged wood seized this year for unknown reasons. The auctions committee had to postpone the auctions several times for a lack of interest, and ended up negotiating a price for the lots with individual buyers.