Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday retracted an order to use all illegally logged wood seized by the government to build schools and housing for teachers, arguing that they would struggle to carry the wood out of the forest.
In a surprise move at the annual meeting of the Education Ministry in March, Mr. Hun Sen announced an immediate end to the government’s sales of seized wood, a highly secretive process that had been favoring the well-connected in violation of the Forestry Law, which requires that the wood be sold at public auctions.
Instead, the prime minister ordained, all the wood would be handed over to the Education Ministry to build schools, desks, teachers’ housing and whatever else it needed.
By then, a special task force commissioned by Mr. Hun Sen in January to root out illegal timber stocks in eastern Cambodia had seized some 35,000 cubic meters of wood. The task force’s haul has since doubled to a massive 70,000 cubic meters, enough to fill more than 2,000 standard 6-meter shipping containers.
Despite the public pledge, Mr. Hun Sen confirmed during a speech at a graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh on Tuesday that the wood would be sold off after all.
“I had announced that all seized wood would not be auctioned off for export,” he said. “After some discussions, there are roughly 70,000 cubic meters of seized wood, and the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport is not able to take all of this wood by itself.”
Mr. Hun Sen said he could foresee teachers struggling to move the wood out of the forest, where much of it was found and still remains under guard.
“I, in the position of prime minister, saw that it would be very difficult for male and female teachers to do it, since some of the wood remains in the forest,” he said. “That’s why [we] established a committee to auction off the wood for local use, not export. But the revenue earned from the auction of the seized wood that was illegally logged must be added to the budget of the education sector.”
The prime minister gave no other details about the pending auction.
At the meeting in March where Mr. Hun Sen announced his plans to put the wood to use building schools and teachers’ housing, Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron was reluctant to accept the wood, asking for “clear procedures” about how the wood-for-teachers program would work, until the prime minister insisted he take it and moved on to other matters.
Contacted on Tuesday, Mr. Chuon Naron said that Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin was heading the auction committee and that his ministry had no time to get involved.
“The Ministry of Education doesn’t have time to work on this timber issue because we have many important things to do,” he said.
Josie Cohen, senior land campaigner for environmental rights group Global Witness, said Cambodia’s decision to revive the wood auctions could wipe out any gains the task force has made fighting illegal logging.
“This U-turn risks undermining any progress on fighting forest crime made by the anti-logging task force,” she said. “If the government insists on auctioning off the timber, then it must be done transparently and prohibit individuals and companies with a history of illegal logging, such as Try Pheap, from buying the timber.”
Global Witness and others believe the sales help to fuel the country’s illegal logging trade by giving the government an easy revenue stream and well-connected timber traders a cheap supply.
The 70,000 cubic meters of wood seized by the task force could sell for tens of millions of dollars, depending partly on the species of the trees the wood comes from. A spokesman for the Education Ministry has said that some of the recently seized wood was Beng and Kra Nhung, the two most valuable species that grow in Cambodia.
In the past, the government has been reluctant to share information about the wood it has sold. In 2013, however, it sold 5,000 cubic meters to Try Pheap, a timber magnate and adviser to Mr. Hun Sen, for $3.5 million. It again sold Mr. Pheap 6,000 cubic meters for $1.6 million in 2014.
They could possibly have gone for more. The Forestry Law requires that all seized wood be sold at public auction. But there is no evidence that such auctions have ever taken place, and the government has refused to furnish any. Sales in 2013 and 2014 in particular raised suspicions of corruption because the person winning most—if not all—of the deals was Mr. Pheap, an adviser to Mr. Hun Sen who has lavished the government with donations while being barraged with illegal logging allegations he has consistently denied.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)