ELC in Nature Preserve Is Illegal, Government Spokesman Says

An “unofficial” land concession granted earlier this year to an agro-industry firm that has logged luxury hardwood in Ratanakkiri province’s Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary is in violation of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 2012 moratorium on new economic land concessions (ELCs), a government spokesman said Tuesday.

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said Daun Penh Agrico Co. Ltd.’s new land concession contravenes Mr. Hun Sen’s May 2012 ban on the issuing of new ELCs, which are widely blamed for the country’s rapid deforestation.

“It’s unlawful,” Mr. Siphan said.

“Everyone involved is subject to the law,” he said, adding that the ministries of environment and agriculture, as well as local authorities in Ratanakkiri, must stand accountable for allowing the concession to be granted.

Ratanakkiri provincial governor Pao Ham Phan on Monday said that Daun Penh Agrico—which was awarded an 8,825-hectare ELC inside the 250,000-hectare sanctuary in 2011—was also granted a second, “unofficial” concession earlier this year inside the protected zone.

Local officials and human rights workers have alleged that the company has engaged in systematic

felling of protected tree species, including rosewood, on its newly acquired land inside the sanctuary. The logged trees have then been processed into timber for sale and export at a sawmill located inside the company’s first ELC, they alleged.

Kim Eang, a representative of Daun Penh Agrico, reiterated Tuesday that she did not know which government body had approved the company’s newest concession, which was granted about five months ago.

Ms. Eang said that 10 officials from the Environment Ministry and provincial government came to the company’s sawmill last month and inquired about the trees that were being cut into timber.

“My superiors showed them a document…and they stamped each piece of wood to mark them as ‘legal,’” Ms. Eang said, again declining to name her superiors at the company.

Mr. Ham Phan, the provincial governor, on Tuesday said that he was one of the officials who had visited Daun Penh Agrico’s sawmill last month, but declined to answer questions related to the company’s new concession.

“I don’t want to comment,” Mr. Ham Pan said.

According to the company’s website, Daun Penh Agrico is a subsidiary of the Daun Penh (Cambodia) Group, which is overseen by the AZ Group, a conglomerate founded in 1993 by Ing Bun Haow, a former CPP secretary of state at the Ministry of Public Works and Transport. Mr. Bun Haow declined to comment on Daun Penh Agrico.

Thun Sarath, spokesman for the Agriculture Ministry’s Forestry Administration, who also called the “unofficial” concession illegal, said that forestry officials would not investigate the logging operation unless directly authorized to do so by the Ratanakkiri Provincial Court.

“The prosecutor [must] send a letter…and then we will investigate,” Mr. Sarath said.

When asked to comment on the legality of Daun Penh Agrico’s new concession, Sao Sopheak, cabinet chief at the Environment Ministry, said: “I don’t know.”

Photographs taken of the logs and sawmill by local rights group Adhoc last week also showed men claiming to work for Try Pheap Import Export transporting 3-meter-long pieces of luxury timber across the Srepok River inside the Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary.

Chhay Thy, Adhoc’s investigator in Ratanakkiri, on Tuesday estimated that the workers, using homemade trucks, transported about 40 cubic meters of wood out of the sanctuary every day—enough timber to fill two-thirds of a standard shipping container. Most of the wood goes to Vietnam, the rest to Phnom Penh, Mr. Thy said.

“The authorities have no right to stop the trucks and confiscate the wood because Try Pheap has a license to transport it,” Mr. Thy added.

Try Pheap Import Export was granted the exclusive right to purchase all timber felled in Ratanakkiri by the Agriculture Ministry in February.

Pen Bonnar, senior investigator at Adhoc, which last week received a complaint about rampant logging in the Lumphat sanctuary from 124 ethnic Lao families living in the area, said that many firms holding pre-2012 ELCs in Ratanakkiri are clearing forest at an unprecedented rate and selling the timber to Try Pheap.

“Every day, people are going and cutting the trees and then selling to Try Pheap,” Mr. Bonnar said, calling the government’s decision to grant the company exclusive wood-purchase rights “very dangerous.”

“Everybody knows him [Try Pheap] and they go into the forest without fear,” Mr. Bonnar said.

The Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary is home to rare mammals such as elephants, tigers and bears.

A study published in the journal Science on Friday found that Cambodia experienced the fifth-highest rate of deforestation in the world between 2000 and 2012, losing more than 7 percent of its forest cover during that period.

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