The government has canceled yet another round of auctions aimed at selling off part of the 71,000 cubic meters of illegally logged wood seized by authorities earlier this year due to near-complete lack of interest.
Soung Mengkea, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Finance, said a series of seven auctions in Mondolkiri province set to begin on Monday and run through Friday was called off because not a single person applied to bid for the timber.
The first lot, 26,000 cubic meters valued at $4.7 million, was to go under the gavel on Monday at the Dai Nam plantation, where authorities found the wood.
“Only one application form was sold for [the auction at] Dai Nam, but the application was not submitted,” Mr. Mengkea said.
It was the fourth time authorities have canceled a scheduled auction in the past month, largely due to a lack of interest. The government managed to attract three bidders on one occasion but called the event off because one of the applicants was under the age of 18.
“We have opened the auctions to everyone, whether they have experience or have no experience in the timber business, but we don’t know why they aren’t applying,” Mr. Mengkea said, adding that an ad hoc committee set up to run the auctions would decide how to deal with the apparent apathy.
Committee members could not be reached on Monday for comment.
The government has prohibited anyone with a history of forest crimes from participating in the auctions. But the plantations and sawmills where most of the timber was found have yet to be charged, and Mr. Mengkea declined to say whether any of them had been barred from bidding.
Soeng Sam Ol, a wealthy timber trader who has been accused of buying and selling illegally logged wood in Mondolkiri, said he had chosen not to join the auctions.
He denied trading in illicit timber but said he was worried that if he ventured to tender a bid, the government would find him guilty anyway.
“If I apply to bid and they find me guilty, they will take my money out of my bank account,” he said.
Mr. Sam Ol said he also worried that the timber would be in bad shape after spending the past several months in the open.
Try Pheap, perhaps the country’s most prolific and notorious timber trader, has also bowed out of the auctions. Two separate undercover investigations have linked the wealthy businessman to a vast illegal logging operation concentrated in the northeast. But Mr. Pheap, a personal adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, has denied the allegations and avoided state scrutiny.
The 71,000 cubic meters currently up for sale, enough to fill more than 2,000 standard 6-meter shipping containers, was seized between January and April in coordination with a special task force created by Mr. Hun Sen to root out illicit timber stocks in the eastern provinces.
The prime minister initially said timber confiscated by the task force would be handed over to the Education Ministry for construction purposes, but he later canceled the plan, saying the ministry lacked the means to haul away the wood.
The timber, however, may be moving anyway.
Marcus Hardtke, who has worked with a number of environmental and conservation groups in Cambodia since the mid-1990s, said sources in the provinces were reporting that much of the seized timber has already been smuggled into Vietnam.
“From what we’re hearing, a lot of that timber is gone already by now, found its way across the border or simply ‘melted away’ over the last months,” he said in an email. “The [plantation] fires also provided a cover-up.”
While the task force was at work earlier this year, authorities claimed that thousands of cubic meters of seized timber were destroyed in a series of mysterious arson attacks, all of which have remained unsolved.
And despite the government’s claims that a complete ban on timber exports to Vietnam imposed in January has been effective, Vietnamese customs data obtained by the NGO Forest Trends show that thousands of cubic meters of wood have been getting across the border each month.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)