Customs Data Shows Banned Timber Exports Still Growing

New customs data from Vietnam shows that Cambodian timber exports to the country continued to rise in the first quarter of the year, despite an official ban on the trade.

The figures corroborate the findings of a recent undercover probe by the U.K.’s Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which reported an industrial-scale timber laundering operation between Ratanakkiri province and Vietnam that started late last year.

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Logs are hauled onto a truck in Ratanakkiri province in February for export to Vietnam. (EIA)

In the months following the government’s ban on all timber exports to Vietnam in January last year, the trade took a heavy hit, according to Vietnamese customs data collected by the U.S. NGO Forest Trends. But the same data showed the cross-border trade picking up again and approaching recent historic levels.

First quarter figures for this year show the trend continuing, totaling 222,000 cubic meters of wood worth $95.8 million. That’s well over half the timber Cambodia exported to Vietnam in all of last year in both volume and value.

The figures also show the illicit trade continuing to grow month on month. Sawn wood exports jumped from 26,000 cubic meters in January to 46,000 cubic meters by March, the most of any month since the ban took effect. Logs, which have been illegal to export since the 1990s, went from 44,000 cubic meters to 52,000 cubic meters over the same period.

The special task force that announced the export ban, under the command of National Military Police chief Sao Sokha, has dismissed the mounting evidence. So has Environment Minister Say Sam Al, whose job is to manage the country’s protected areas, from which much of the looted timber is coming.

The EIA investigation, published in a report released on Monday, says Cambodian authorities colluded with Vietnamese companies to illegally log Ratanakkiri’s protected areas and drive the timber to Vietnam, where it was laundered into the country’s legal timber industry. The undercover investigators’ interviews with traders suggested that Cambodian and Vietnamese authorities had been earning million of dollars worth of kickbacks in the process.

Over a few months late last year and into this year, EIA estimates that the operation smuggled more than 300,000 cubic meters of wood out of Ratanakkiri.

Provincial officials have dismissed or downplayed the report’s claims.

Contacted on Monday, Mr. Sam Al declined to comment on the report, saying he and his staff were still parsing the findings.

“Some of the claims we need to triple-check, not just double-check,” he said. “It’s going to take some time.”

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