Government Sets Dates for Timber Auctions

The majority of the 70,000 cubic meters of timber confiscated by the government this year will be put to bid starting later this month at a combined initial asking price of $12.2 million, according to a statement issued by the Ministry of Finance on Monday.

The timber, enough to fill more than 2,000 standard 6-meter shipping containers, was seized by a special task force set up by Prime Minister Hun Sen in January to root out illegal wood stocks across eastern Cambodia. Most of it was found on rubber plantations, in or around sawmills, or in state forests.

In March, Mr. Hun Sen ordered an immediate stop to the auctions the government had allegedly 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 70,000 cubic meters would be auctioned off after all because, he claimed, the Education Ministry—which had been granted the wood to build schools, teacher housing and anything else it needed—lacked the resources to haul it away. The ministry will now get whatever money the auction raises.

According to the Finance Ministry, the first 62,000 cubic meters will be put under the gavel in seven groups by location—all of them in Mondolkiri province—between June 27 and July 1. The largest batch will go to bid on June 27 at the Chinese-owned Dai Nam plantation: 26,000 cubic meters at an initial asking price of $4.7 million.

Mondolkiri governor Svay Sam Eang said the auctions were starting in his province because it was where the task force had found most of the wood.

“The bidding needs to happen step by step, and the amount of wood here is very large. Then it will be done in the other provinces later,” he said, declining to comment further.

The auctions’ announcement is a major reversal for the government.

Over the past several years, it has sold thousands of cubic meters of wood with nary a trace of a public auction, in clear breach of the Forestry Law. A special committee headed by Eang Sophalleth, a personal assistant to Mr. Hun Sen, sold most of the wood to timber baron Try Pheap, an adviser to Mr. Hun Sen, at what appeared to be bargain rates. As for the companies on whose properties the timber has been seized since January, none have been charged with a crime. The provincial courts have opened several investigations, but the firms claim the wood is not theirs.

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