andan district, Kompong Thom province – A Vietnamese-operated sawmill and furniture factory, supplied with illicit luxury hardwood, was running full bore Sunday on the Colexim timber company’s Kompong Thom concession.
Asked where the timber came from, one of the factory workers said “Camp 99,” the base of Colexim’s operations here and the residence of the concession’s co-directors.
But after being pressed further on the wood’s origin, the worker appeared to change his mind and said it had been cut by area farmers.
The factory manager, hard at work sawing boards, refused to respond to questions.
Camp 99 shares a deforested swath of Meanrith commune with a village that is not yet officially recognized. According to O’Pok village Chief Iem Thoeun, the people here have lived in the area for generations.
Iem Thoeun said Sunday the district officials recognize O’Pok and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has trained two village representatives to manage a community forest, should the government grant O’Pok the 1,000 hectares it has applied for.
Sao Tak, 28, was one of those representatives. He said that when he returned from his training, Colexim officials taunted him.
“They said, ‘If you community forest people are so strong, go and confiscate our logs,’” he said.
The grievances of villagers living around the Colexim concession have been many. In 1997, a company security guard shot and killed a villager who complained that his resin trees, the primary source of revenue for most locals until they disappeared, had been cut by Colexim.
In their 2002 comments on the Colexim concession management plan, submitted to the government, area villagers accused company personnel of being responsible for the 2001 rape of a local woman, the repeated logging of a burial site and for threatening villagers at gunpoint, among other offenses.
Sao Tak said that, despite that history, he still was willing to speak out against the timber company.
Colexim is cutting trees and sawing them in the forest. The wood is trucked south to Kompong Thmar village on National Route 6 in Santuk district at least once a week in large trucks, concealed under bananas, Sao Tak said.
Sometimes the wood goes north to the Vietnamese-run factory in the village of Samaong before being taken back south as furniture, doors and window frames, he said.
“When the [provincial] foresters are strict, they transport to the furniture shop. When the foresters are not strict, they send [the timber] to Kompong Thmar,” he said.
“We hear the machines. We see the transports. We recognize Colexim officials coming in here to organize the cutting,” Sao Tak said.
At Camp 99, a man came out of a building smiling. He kept smiling until asked if he knew of the furniture production on his company’s concession.
Then he said he had just arrived at the camp and excused himself. He returned about a minute later with another man who identified himself and the first man as the concession’s co-directors, but declined to give their names because of security concerns.
Yes, Colexim knew of the Vietnamese furniture shop, but that was the concern of local authorities, the second man said.
“It is not true that Colexim is still cutting,” he added. “Because of [the trees] the rubber plantation took, Colexim got a bad reputation.”
The Chup Rubber Plantation Co is in the finishing stages of converting 6,200 hectares of lowland evergreen forest into the Tumring rubber plantation, named for the commune where it is located.
Some of that converted area was once part of Colexim’s concession, but the second concession director, who did most of the talking, said his company had never been able to collect any of the logs it was due.
“After the plantation was cleared, the government didn’t allow Colexim to collect logs, but Seng Keang was allowed,” he said.
Villagers and NGO forest monitors have said that Seng Keang is the boss of a self-named company and the wife of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s cousin, Dy Choch.
Pol Kham Nare, director of Kompong Thom’s forestry office, said in September that Seng Keang had been granted a permit to collect firewood from the plantation.
But the second Colexim official at Camp 99 said that Seng Keang had collected “big round logs,” as well as firewood.
He said Colexim would not resume felling trees or transporting timber without government permission.
The government issued a logging moratorium in December 2001.
Minutes after the meeting with the Colexim concession co-directors, stacks of freshly sawn timber were found behind Camp 99, resting amid sawdust.
According to a July 2002 report by the London-based forest monitoring group Global Witness, the Colexim company is jointly owned by the government and the Japanese company Okada and managed by a deputy director of the Department of Forestry and Wildlife.
And according to a Dec 20 letter from the World Bank and a 2002 audit of the Ministry of Agriculture, $80,000 of Colexim royalties still has not reached state coffers.
Asked about more than $3 million in missing royalties that Minister of Finance Keat Chhon demanded of logging companies in 2002, World Bank official Melissa Fossberg wrote from Washington that “$0.8 million have still not been transferred to the budget (and relate to Sun Ly Seng and Sarimexco companies).”
Keat Chhon wrote the Ministry of Agriculture on June 7, 2002, informing the ministry it had transgressed “Financial Law” by allowing “money transfers to offset the royalty payments of certain logging companies which are out of the State budget circuit.”
Among the five irregular cases mentioned in the audit report was a transfer of $80,000 from Colexim to Sarimexco. Sarimexco apparently then passed the $80,000, along with $290,000 from the Grand Atlantic Timber International Co, to the Ministry of Defense, the report said. It added that the paper trail was incomplete.
Offsetting schemes entail passing the government debt to a company that owes the government money. The payments then bypass government channels and are difficult to trace.
On Dec 12, Colexim Chief of Council Koji Okada wrote to Minister of Agriculture Chan Sarun saying that his company had fulfilled its obligations to the state and requested the logging moratorium be lifted.
Chan Sarun could not be reached for comment.
The World Bank reported earlier this month that the government has canceled 25 “non-performing” concessions and is in the process of canceling seven more. Eight, including Colexim, remain.
NGO Forum earlier this month tried without success to dissuade the World Bank from issuing a $15 million conditional loan, arguing the conditions had not been met.
Its representative Russell Peterson wrote to the World Bank on Dec 11, saying, “If by non-performing, the Bank is referring to operating within the legal framework, paying the required royalties, logging sustainably, and respecting the rights of communities living inside the concession areas, not a single concessionaire could be considered to be performing.”