NGOs and community representatives called on the government Wednesday to open up its secretive auctions for confiscated timber and cancel a deal that lets timber magnate Try Pheap buy all the wood in government depots, both of which they say fuel illegal logging across the country.
At a press conference in Phnom Penh, representatives of the NGO Forum and Community Legal Education Center were joined by three villagers from Kratie, Mondolkiri and Preah Vihear provinces who blame rampant illegal logging for destroying their communities.
The government handled 1,891 cases of forest crime and illegal logging during the first nine months of the year, according to a new report from the Ministry of Agriculture. It also says the government seized 1,601 cubic meters of logs, another 4,162 cubic meters of cut timber and 105 cubic meters of the country’s most precious timber—rosewood.
The NGOs and villagers blamed the problem in large part on how the government handles all the illegally logged wood it seizes.
By law, it is supposed to put it all up for public auction. In reality, NGOs say they have seen no trace of the auctions and the government refuses to provide an accounting of the process. .
For the past few years, the winning bids have all gone to Mr. Pheap, who then goes on to sell the wood abroad, making millions of dollars in profits. NGOs say the process gives the government, which also profits off the bids, no incentive to stop the illegal logging that makes the sales to Mr. Pheap possible.
Among the recommendations the NGOs and villagers made Wednesday was that the auctions be truly public and that civil society be allowed to monitor them.
They also asked the government to cancel the exclusive rights it has given Mr. Pheap to buy up all seized wood in the possession of the agriculture and environment ministries.
A July 24 order from the Council of Ministers instructs the ministries to negotiate a price for the wood with Mr. Pheap’s companies alone, and to do the same with any wood they seize in the future.
Svay Phoeun, a member of the Community Peace Building Network, said the deal with Mr. Pheap was—like the secretive auctions—only fueling the illegal logging.
“I think Samdech Prime Minister [Hun Sen] should revoke the deal from Try Pheap because it will destroy the forests across the whole country,” he said.
Government officials refused to address the complaints Wednesday.
Agriculture Minister Ouk Rabun hung up on a reporter. At the ministry’s Forestry Administration, law enforcement director Tim Sipha declined to comment and referred questions to the administration’s spokesman. The Forestry Administration does not have a spokesman.
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana and Zsombor Peter)