Illegal Timber: Seeing the Forest for the Thieves

Government officials responsible for cracking down on illegal logging are actually organizing and profiting by the lucrative black-market timber trade in a web of corruption that reaches the highest levels of government, according to a report released Friday by forestry watchdog Global Witness.

The report examines the illegal timber business in Kompong Speu province’s Oral Wildlife Sanctuary to illustrate the countrywide involvement of local and national military, military police, police, forestry, environmental, provincial and district officials in illegal logging.

It comprises the results of extensive investigations, and echoes criticism long raised by others working in forestry, offering a detailed description of who does what and where.

“Cambodian functionaries and soldiers charged with suppressing forest crime use their office as a basis for extortion rather than law enforcement,” Global Wit­ness said in the report. “They are encouraged, even compelled to do so by senior officials in Phnom Penh who control the opaque patronage networks that substitute for a system of governance in Cambodia.”

There has been no official government response to the Global Witness allegations as yet, though officials named in it have denied the allegations. Others, including Environment Minister Mok Mareth, said Sunday the claims will need to be investigated.

According to the report, soldiers and generals in Military Region 3 are among the biggest players in all aspects of the illegal timber trade, from logging to transport, protection and extortion, the report said, with illicit profits passed up the chain of command.

Military Region 3 Commander Keo Samuan “sits at the apex of the Military Region 3 revenue collection system,” Global Witness said.

Keo Samuan flatly denied any involvement in the timber trade.

“I have never done any timber business at all…. what is reported is exaggerated.

“If they see anyone doing business, please arrest them, but don’t accuse the innocent,” he said Sunday, adding that his subordinates are not involved in illegal logging.

Global Witness, however, detailed the role of the region’s Battalion 313 as major timber suppliers.

“Aside from extracting wood that they have cut themselves, Battalion 313 soldiers also escort cartloads of timber out of the forest on behalf of the timber businesses,” Global Witness said.

Military police are also key players, and their “activities include buying and selling of luxury-grade wood, extraction of bribes from other operators, operating a sawmill behind their office and protecting transports of luxury timber out of Aural,” the report said, identifying Military Police Commander Sao Sokha as a powerbroker.

“Aural MPs essentially operate a local branch of the nation-wide luxury timber business run by Military Police Chief Lieutenant-General Sao Sokha,” Global Witness said, citing interviews with RCAF personnel and investigations.

Sao Sokha also denied any role in the illegal timber trade.

“I have never been involved in the timber trade…. I have tried very hard to crack down on illegal logging, and we have arrested illegal loggers,” he said.

Global Witness said Forestry Ad­min­istration and Ministry of Environment officials also earn money from illegal timber.

“According to foresters working in other areas of Cambodia, FA senior management have ordered all staff to encourage illegal logging and then extort money from the perpetrators,” Global Witness said.

Than Sarath, Forestry Admin­istration deputy director of public affairs, declined to comment on the report, saying he submitted it to administration Director Ty Sokhun, but had no official response.

Minister Mok Mareth said officials at the Environment Ministry are investigating allegations leveled against individual environment officers.

“We have proceeded through investigations that are very organized, very secret and confidential,” he said.

And, Global Witness said even district and provincial officials have gotten in on the game.

“In one instance we discovered an official register of illegal operators including details of their equipment and their home ad­dresses, but rather than using this for enforcement purposes it is being used as the basis for extortion,” Jon Buckrell of Global Witness said in a news release for the report.

Mike Appleton, manager of the Flora and Fauna International project that includes enforcement and community work in Oral Wildlife Sanctuary, said the new report “confirms our fears about what has been going on there. It’s clear that the problems affecting the management of Oral have to be addressed at the highest lev­el,” he said.

Global Witness criticized officials and donors for not effectively fighting corruption. It called on donors to tie nonhumanitarian aid to reforms such as the full disclosure of documents relating to the forestry sector and the creation of a register of business and familial links to the timber trade for politicians, civil servants and military officers.

“A hard question needs to be asked—if the international community cannot get it right in Cambo­dia, what hope [is there] for other post-conflict countries blighted by resource wars and highly corrupted resource sectors?” the report said.


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