Environment and agriculture ministry officials Wednesday warned the authors of a new report accusing the government of colluding with timber magnate Try Pheap to illegally log the protected forests of northeastern Cambodia that they could be sued unless they made changes to the text.
Launched Wednesday by the NGO Forum, “Logs and Patronage in Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng Provinces” essentially rehashes the claims and evidence the London-based environmental rights group Global Witness included in a report released in February.
Based on evidence gathered over the course of an eight-month undercover investigation, Global Witness accused Mr. Pheap of working with ministry and military officials in using his exclusive rights to all the wood felled on Ratanakkiri’s economic land concessions to loot the province’s protected forests.
Soth Pisith, the lead researcher behind the NGO Forum’s report, said his team of researchers recently carried out four months of undercover work of their own, recording the GPS coordinates of the illegal logging they witnessed. But the report also used some of the same government records—including decrees and export licenses—as Global Witness did to back up its claims.
Based on its brief observations of Mr. Pheap’s depots in three districts, the NGO Forum report claims that the timber magnate logged at least 243,000 cubic meters of wood in those areas in 2014. Using very rough estimates of how much the wood was worth, it claims that Mr. Pheap has earned $292 million in profits from that timber. And like Global Witness, the NGO Forum report claims that police, military police and soldiers were working with or for Mr. Pheap in his illegal logging racket.
“I think that this is an accusation without proof,” said Environment Ministry deputy cabinet chief Srun Darith, who attended the launch of the report. “I wish to state that this book could become evidence if another side files a complaint about these accusations.”
Mr. Darith said he was worried that the researchers “could become the victims, because they accuse people. So they [the accused] have the right to defend themselves following the law, because they have been defamed.”
He suggested, for example, that the authors replace the word “deforestation” with “the situation in the forest.”
Representatives of Mr. Pheap, who is no stranger to these accusations, have repeatedly claimed that the illegal loggers are operating independently, using the tycoon’s name without his knowledge or permission in order to evade the law.
Soun Sovann, the Forestry Administration’s deputy director of legislation and law enforcement, who also attended the report’s launch, insisted that words and figures should be changed.
“We wish to oppose the report, and it cannot be for official use because they used the wrong words,” he said. “We are Khmer, so they should recheck the words they use in the report. The government has the right to change the words in the report, so the researchers should cooperate with the government authorities.”
Mr. Pisith said he was prepared to tweak the wording in the report, but not the figures.
“We have enough evidence and documents, such as pictures and video, to prove that the companies are really logging illegally and transporting wood from the forest,” he said. “I do not agree to change the figures in the report because we have enough evidence and documents, but we will change some of the words.”
And despite the overwhelming similarities with the Global Witness report, including some of the same photos, Mr. Pisith claimed that he had never even heard of the London-based NGO.
“We are not involved” with them, he said. “We had a six-person team and we have enough evidence. We made a field visit to the area and we are independent.”
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)