Government Sets Dates for Auction of Final Lots of Seized Timber

The government has set the dates to auction off the last of the 71,000 cubic meters of illegally logged timber seized by authorities this year, carrying on a practice riddled with signs of corruption in the past.

Earlier this month, the Finance Ministry announced its plans to auction off the first 62,000 cubic meters in Mondolkiri province from June 27 to July 1, at a combined initial asking price of $12.2 million.

On Tuesday, the ministry announced that the last 9,000 cubic meters would be put under the gavel between July 12 and 15 in four lots in the provinces of Ratanakkiri, Stung Treng, Kratie and Tbong Khmum, respectively. It has set a combined initial asking price of $1.8 million for the four lots.

Srun Darith, an undersecretary of state at the Environment Ministry who sits on the ad hoc committee set up to oversee the auctions, said the last four lots would see the whole of the seized timber sold off.

“The bidding committee is working on the 70,000 cubic meters the government decided to give to the Education Ministry. The committee will be dissolved once the wood is sold,” he said.

In March, Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered an end to the auctions that the government had supposedly been using to offload seized wood, admitting that the scheme had failed to curb illegal logging.

But he reversed course last month, announcing that the 71,000 cubic meters would be auctioned off after all because, he claimed, the Education Ministry—which had been gifted the wood to build schools, teacher housing and anything else it needed—lacked the resources to transport it. The Education Ministry will now get whatever money the auctions raise.

Authorities around the country have seized several truckloads of timber since the 71,000 cubic meters were announced in mid-April. But Mr. Darith said he had no idea if that, too, would be auctioned off.

The Forestry Law requires that all seized timber be sold at public auctions. Until these two recent announcements from the Finance Ministry, however, there had been no sign of such auctions and the government had refused to provide any proof that they had been held.

Over the past few years, the government has sold thousands of cubic meters of seized wood at bargain rates to timber magnate Try Pheap, an adviser to Mr. Hun Sen accused by environmental rights groups of having run one of the largest illegal logging rackets in the country. The government and Mr. Pheap have both denied the illegal logging allegations.

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