siem reap town – Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of confiscated timber has disappeared from the Siem Reap office of the Forestry Administration, and officials have failed to explain where it went.
In late January, forestry officials reported having confiscated 800 cubic meters of illegal timber in a high-profile crackdown that began in December. At least half of the timber was stored outside the Siem Reap forestry office, according to officials and photographs taken by forestry watchdog Global Witness.
But on Jan 24, trucks began taking the timber away, said Pol Kham Nare, deputy chief of inspection of Northern Tonle Sap lake region. Global Witness received reports that the timber had disappeared by late February.
“There was good quality timber, ‘beng’ and ‘kra nhoung,’” said Pol Kham Nare, referring to two species of luxury timber, usually used to make furniture. A cubic meter of the rare wood, about three trees worth, sells in Cambodia for between $500 and $700, and for far more outside the country, according to interviews with furniture makers and the results of Global Witness investigations.
A visit on April 21 to the Forestry Administration offices confirmed that the timber was no longer stored there.
“They trucked the timber away, but I don’t know where it went,” Pol Kham Nare said. “I didn’t ask because the timber was confiscated before I took my post.”
Pol Kham Nare was head of forestry in Kompong Thom province, and took over as regional deputy in January, after the timber was confiscated, during a reshuffling of positions at the Forestry Administration, which operates under the Ministry of Agriculture.
Another high-ranking regional forestry official who took part in the crackdown, said no wood had disappeared and claimed the timber was being stored at the Siem Reap Agricultural Department’s agricultural machinery office. The official declined to be named, saying he would “get in trouble” from Forestry Administration officials in Phnom Penh.
The wood was not seen at the machinery office in two visits in the past week. It held logs and approximately 80 cubic meters of cut timber. Global Witness investigators found approximately 50 cubic meters there in late January, before the bulk of the wood had disappeared from the Siem Reap Forestry Administration office.
The forestry officials said the wood had not been auctioned, which is the process required by the Forestry Law to dispose of confiscated timber. After an auction, the proceeds should go into government coffers.
Than Sarath, deputy director of the public affairs unit at the Forestry Administration, said no auction has been held in Siem Reap because the courts first must process the case and declare the timber state property, a monthslong process. The auction also must be preceded by a 20-day period of publication.
Mike Davis of Global Witness alleged that the timber was sold to line the pockets of forestry officials, and help them pay for good official posts, which he said is common practice in the administration. “This is all going on when they are scrambling to get as much money as possible to pay for their shiny new positions in the Forestry Administration,” he said.
Than Sarath, deputy director of the public affairs unit at the Forestry Administration denied that officials paid for their posts.
“They are given out by selection, carefully, by qualifications, by experience and leadership,” he said.