VIRACHEY NATIONAL PARK, Ratanakkiri Province – In one of the most remote corners of the country, amid rolling green hills hours from any village, the looting of a protected forest is in full swing.
From the loggers camped out inside the park, to the teenagers driving the smaller pieces of wood out by motorcycle and the truck drivers hauling out the heaviest logs; from the boatmen ferrying it all across the Sesan River after nightfall and the truck drivers waiting for them on the other side, the illicit trade of the park’s luxury-grade Thnong trees is a well-oiled machine.
And on everyone’s lips, when asked who was paying for all this wood, are two names: a local businessman everyone seems to know only as Me Kry—Boss Kry—and well-known timber magnate Try Pheap.
The owner of casinos, rubber plantations and mining concessions across the country, Mr. Pheap earlier this year secured the exclusive rights to buy up every square inch of wood cut down on any economic land concession (ELC) in Ratanakkiri. With more than two-dozen ELCs in the province, many of them granted in densely forested areas, Mr. Pheap—who owns two ELCs of his own inside Virachey—has been busy.
But with all healthy forests nominally protected by law, whether outside or inside an ELC, environmental and human rights groups say the deal has only hastened the demise of the province’s forests. They also say it has given illegal loggers carte blanche to operate in the open and launder their wood through the ELCs, where there are virtually no checks in place to determine that what is being sold and bought is legally sourced.
Spokesmen and managers for Mr. Pheap’s eponymous import-export company have denied any involvement in the illicit timber trade. They accuse the illegal loggers of operating on their own and of using the businessman’s name as cover. If that’s true, it’s working like a charm.
About an hour’s drive north of the provincial capital of Banlung is the village of Taveng, near the steep, muddy banks of the Sesan River. After a noisy trip across its brown waters on a flat, double-hulled ferry, it’s another hour’s drive to the bottom of the sprawling, 333,000-hectare park in the province’s far northeast corner, bordering Vietnam and Laos.
There are no guard posts, no signs, not even a line in the dirt marking the park’s borders.
Our guide, a former Virachey Park ranger who declined to give his name for fear of running afoul of the men running the area’s illegal logging trade, stopped abruptly at a fork in the narrow dirt path.
“This is where the park begins,” the ex-ranger said before motoring on. Wrapped up in a jacket against the cooler hill temperatures, he spoke little and drove fast, lighting up a fresh cigarette at every opportunity.
Very soon the forest grew thicker and the trees taller. Young men drove past on motorcycles carrying table-sized slabs of deep red wood, heading out of the park. Along the way, freshly logged Thnong trees lay on their sides, some only just felled, others already stripped and cut into meters-long blocks, painted with numbers and ready to be hauled out.
A few hours into the park, a group of four men toiled around a small cook fire, their clothes and hammocks strung out around it between the trees—a logging camp, one of many inside the park. A chainsaw and a pair of spare blades lay on the ground.
Doeun Ra, a soft-spoken 19-year-old, said he had arrived at the camp the day before and planned to stay another 10 days.
“There is a manager named Mab. He’s responsible for the loggers and he pays 200,000 riel [about $50] per cubic meter for my group of four people,” he said. “My manager told me that the village and commune chiefs allow us to cut the trees here.”
In Banlung, a cubic meter of Thnong can go for up to $800, and even more in Phnom Penh or Vietnam.
Mr. Ra said Mab was a middleman for a larger business.
“I cut the trees for Me Kry, a businessman in Taveng,” he said. “I took the job because I need the money.”
Along the rutted dirt road back toward the river, a truck with a flat tire sat stranded in the middle of the road near a clearing in the woods. The young driver, An Dy, had strung up a hammock between a knob on the passenger side and a notched branch propped up against the truck. In the back of the truck lay at least six large pieces of Thnong headed for the river’s edge.
In near pitch black, Mr. Dy was waiting patiently for help to arrive.
“From Virachey Park,” he said, when asked where the logs had come from.
“I transport the wood for Me Kry. He pays me $200 to transport two cubic meters and all of this wood will be dropped at the Sesan riverbank,” he said.
“My boss [Me Kry] told me to transport the wood for the Try Pheap company. I drop the wood at the riverbank and then they transport the wood by boat to the other side. Then they transport it by truck to a warehouse in Taveng.”
Dozens of the large logs sat piled up along the riverbank at two separate crossings. At one crossing, two naked bulbs running on a tiny generator cast a dim circle of light over the proceedings. At least a dozen men, a bit older than the loggers in the camps and those who transported the smaller pieces on motorcycles, were measuring the big logs, rolling them down the bank and into the river next to the waiting ferry.
“No pictures,” said the men, waving their hands at a reporter’s camera and refusing to give their names.
Yes, they said, the wood was Thnong from Virachey Park.
“This wood has two owners,” said one. “Some of the wood goes to the Try Pheap company, and some of the wood goes to Oknha Knha.”
He said the oknha—the honorific for a wealthy businessman—sells the wood to a local land concession, one of the more than 24 concessions that Mr. Pheap has the exclusive rights to buy from.
Back in Taveng village, several trucks loaded with the largest logs barreled down the main road.
From here, most of the wood gets shipped to Vietnam through border crossings in O’Yadaw district, the ex-ranger said.
He said he used to guard the park for a World Bank-funded project that ended in 2008. After that, he continued guarding the park, but for the district and at less than half the pay before quitting to run a convenience shop in town.
“The logging has increased after the World Bank project stopped; the World Bank was very strict,” he said. “Before 2008 there was some illegal logging, but it was a small problem here. It wasn’t a big problem like now.”
Since then, he said, the loggers have systematically picked off the most lucrative trees first and worked their way down the list.
“They destroy every kind of tree,” he said. “First they cut the Kra Nhoung, then the Neang Nuon, the Beng and now the Thnong.
“I’m not happy about it because I worked for the World Bank and I never cut one tree. Now they cut them all. Many oknhas have now started businesses in Ratanakkiri, so the forest is getting destroyed. If the logging continues there will be no more forest.”
Only later does the ex-ranger confess that he, too, has joined the ranks of the loggers, transporting wood for Me Kry at $100 per cubic meter. But after paying his team, he’s left with $20 for himself.
“I know I transport the wood for him and it’s wrong; but I just do it for the money,” he said.
In Banlung, the provincial capital, the Try Pheap Group runs its local operations out of a three-story building fronted by cobalt-blue glass just off the main roundabout.
Inside the airy ground floor office, Pol Visal, the company’s administrative director for the province, was busy checking up on the firm’s main lumber depot in the district next door. He declined to comment, directing questions to the head of administration for the Try Pheap Group’s head office in Phnom Penh, Chey Sith, who also declined to comment.
Taveng district and commune officials could not be reached.
Chou Sopheak, who heads the province’s environment department, declined to comment.
Yin Kim Sean, a secretary of state at the Environment Ministry, admitted that illegal logging occurred in Virachey, but said it was sporadic and small-scale.
“We recognize that illegal logging is happening in Virachey Park. Our team is working on it, but it’s difficult to stop,” he said. “We are trying hard to stop the logging, but we can’t because some people steal the trees inside the park. But it’s just sometimes, not every day like you say.”
Officials at the Forestry Administration’s head office in Phnom Penh have denied any knowledge of illegal logging in Ratanakkiri and referred questions to the local administration and police.
“It is the obligation of the provincial Forestry Administration to take action; we are just the national level,” said Thun Sarath, deputy director of the Forestry Administration’s department of administration, planning and finance.
But the Forestry Administration’s chief in Ratanakkiri, Vorng Sokserey, said it was up to the provincial environment department to run Virachey and declined to comment.
Local police want little to do with the problem as well. Provincial police chief Ray Rai said his officers only get involved in illegal logging cases when asked to by the Forestry Administration, confiscating the occasional truckload of timber, but that they have never done so in Virachey.
“This is not the duty of our police; we just cooperate when they need our help,” he said. “It is the duty of the Forestry Administration,” he added.
Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, whose staff have visited Taveng to investigate the area’s illegal logging, said such back-and-forth among local authorities was typical. Mr. Thy, who works out of a traditional Khmer stilt house just down the road from the Try Pheap office, believes the government’s deal with the businessman for all the trees cut down on the province’s ELCs is only fueling the illegal timber trade. He has called for the license to be canceled.
“We have seen that after the government gave a license to Try Pheap, the illegal logging has increased,” he said. “We want the government to take strict action against the illegal logging, otherwise the forest will be destroyed in the near future.”
A study by researchers at the University of Maryland using U.S. satellite images, published in the journal Science last month, found that Cambodia had in the past 12 years experienced the fifth fastest rate of deforestation in the world.
In Taveng, Veasna, a student visiting the area from Phnom Penh, reluctant to give his family name, also chalked the trade up to corruption.
“In theory they say love the environment, protect the environment, but reality is very different,” he said. “Here there is so much cutting, but very hard to stop. There is corruption, so much corruption.”
He said he knew some of the local traders but would not give names. In the few weeks he has been here, he said, he has seen up to 10 trucks per night pass through loaded with the logs coming from Virachey.
“You stay,” he said, “you see.”