Cambodia exported about 50 percent more timber to Vietnam by value in 2015 than the year before, overtaking Laos as Vietnam’s top supplier, according to official data gathered by U.S. conservation group Forest Trends.
The increase came ahead of an abrupt freeze on all timber exports to Vietnam that Cambodia imposed on Monday as part of a crackdown on illegal logging in the eastern provinces.
“Data from Vietnam customs shows that Cambodia has become Vietnam’s largest timber exporter in 2015,” said Xuan Phuc, a Southeast Asia forest trade and finance analyst for Forest Trends.
According to the data, he said, Cambodia’s timber exports to Vietnam shot up 53 percent, from $253 million to $386 million. At the same time, he added, exports from Laos to Vietnam fell 40 percent from $601 million to $360 million.
In a report the group released last year, Forest Trends said the timber Cambodia exported to Vietnam in 2014 added up to 154,000 cubic meters, over half of it consisting of Beng, Thnong and Kra Nhung, among the rarest and most coveted varieties of wood in the region. Kra Nhung, or Siamese rosewood, has also been designated a protected species in Cambodia with stringent export conditions.
Mr. Phuc said most of the exports were illegal, even those that moved through official border checkpoints.
“When I checked with the Vietnamese traders in the area, they told me they did not have any documents when they bought their timber from Cambodia,” he said. “The timber is illegal, as its harvest and/or transportation is in contravention of existing laws…and traders and transporters do not comply with legal requirements regarding their duty to pay tax and/or royalties.”
Jago Wadley, a senior forest campaigner for the NGO Environmental Investigation Agency who studies the region’s timber trade, said Cambodia had overtaken Laos in exporting wood to Vietnam due to several factors: a ready supply from Cambodia thanks to ongoing clearcutting on economic land concessions; a blanket timber export ban in Laos that took effect last year; and an increase in direct shipments from Southeast Asian countries to China, the final destination for much of the high-value timber moving through the region.
“As such, timber imports into Vietnam from Laos are likely now focused more on medium-value hardwoods…which generate lower ex- port revenues than the higher value species increasingly being transported direct to China,” he said.
Despite the constant reports of loggers crossing the Vietnam-Cambodia border with ill-gotten timber, authorities have never acknowledged the scale of the problem. But in an apparent shift, National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha, the head of a new task force charged with rooting out the illicit timber trade in eastern Cambodia, put an immediate freeze on all timber exports to Vietnam on Monday.
Communities along the border, however, say timber is still getting through.
“I used to see at least 10 cars pass my village in the evenings taking wood to Vietnam. The traffic made a lot of noise and interrupted my sleep every night,” said Romash Svat, who lives about 4 km from the border in Ratanakkiri province.
“But the traffic with the wood has decreased in the last few days to about four or five cars in the evening since authorities announced a stop to taking wood to Vietnam,” he said.
Moul Phath, the eastern plains landscape manager for the World Wide Fund for Nature in Cambodia, said his rangers had noticed that timber had stopped crossing into Vietnam from the Mondolkiri Protected Forest—which directly abuts the Vietnam border—since Monday.
But he said he had received reports from villagers in Pech Chreada district of some loggers still smuggling timber across the border elsewhere.
“I have been informed by community forest people there is still some illegal crossing [through] the pepper plantation,” he said.
Some border officials say wood is still making it to Vietnam through legal crossings, too.
“We haven’t seen any trucks taking wood into Vietnam illegally,” said Long Roukha, who runs the O’Yadaw International Checkpoint in Ratanakkiri. “But there are still some cars and motorbikes that pass through with a few pieces of wood, and I let them pass because it’s not a lot.”
The checkpoint sits next to a large dry port belonging to timber magnate Try Pheap, who has used it for years to move shipping containers packed with timber into Vietnam.
A customs officer at the checkpoint said Mr. Pheap’s trucks had stopped over the past week.
In a report released last year, following a monthslong undercover investigation, environmental rights group Global Witness says it tracked containers of illegally logged wood moving through the port and the checkpoint on a daily basis.
As part of its operations, General Sokha’s new task force started searching two of Mr. Pheap’s timber depots in neighboring Stung Treng province on Wednesday. The task force has been combing through piles of logs across eastern Cambodia since Sunday, but has yet to say if it has turned up anything illegal.
On Thursday, task force spokesman Eng Hy refused to believe reports that timber was getting through the border.
“I think this information is not true because we have deployed many police and military police everywhere at the border checkpoints,” he said. “How would those people be able to transport wood into Vietnam?”