Lawmaker Blasts Illegal Logging in Stung Treng

Two draft laws on judicial reform were easily passed by the single-party National Assembly on Friday but the session was overshadowed by a rookie lawmaker’s attack on lax enforcement of forestry laws in Stung Treng province.

On the fourth day of the third plenary session of the Assembly—which the opposition CNRP’s 55 lawmakers-elect continue to boycott, claiming the 2013 national election was stolen—the 65 CPP lawmakers present unanimously passed drafts of the Law on the Status of Judges and Prosecutors and the Law on the Supreme Council of the Magistracy.

But while those two laws were pushed quickly through the Assembly, Loy Sophat, the former governor of Stung Treng province, who became a CPP lawmaker for the fifth mandate, took aim at other laws that he claims are not being enforced.

“The government allowed the construction of the Lower Sesan II hydroelectric dam and made laws on its construction and the clearing of the reservoir,” Mr. Sophat said.

“But the people who have been clearing the reservoir have taken the opportunity to cut down trees and have other people cut down trees outside the reservoir for sale.”

In March 2013, workers began clearing a 36,000-hectare patch of land around the confluence of the Sesan and Srepok rivers in Stung Treng’s Sesan district, which will become the 400-megawatt Lower Sesan II hydropower dam.

The partners in constructing the dam—Cambodian conglomerate Royal Group, which is chaired by powerful businessman Kith Meng, and Chinese copmany Hydrolancang International Energy Co. Ltd.—were given permission to fell all trees on the land and sell the timber.

But Mr. Sophat claimed in the National Assembly on Friday that the companies were cutting luxury timber outside their concession and bringing it inside—making it impossible for authorities to identify the wood as illegally logged.

“In that area, logging is out of control,” Mr. Sophat said. “Some powerful people escape the law and take the opportunity to cut wood inside Virachey National Park and other areas and then transport them to this area [Sesan II].”

Mark Hanna, chief financial officer for Royal Group, said that while the partnership had faced this accusation previously—logging was halted temporarily in October after reports of trees felled outside the reservoir—he had no knowledge of any renewed complaints.

Mr. Hanna said that a third company, whose name he could not recall, was in charge of clearing the land.

“The people looking after that are all in Stung Treng and don’t really speak English,” he said.

Virachey National Park, which stretches from the northeastern tip of neighboring Ratanakkiri province into Stung Treng, is a 330,000-hectare swathe of forest touching the borders with Vietnam and Laos. It is ostensibly protected from loggers, but in fact luxury timber is often felled within the park.

Mr. Sophat charges that, while the protected forest is being destroyed—with the Sesan II concession as one safety zone for looted timber—authorities are ignoring those most responsible and focusing on small-time loggers.

“We crack down on citizens but the big smugglers are free,” Mr. Sophat said.

“We have a role to protect the forest, but we crack down on citizens who cut the trees simply to feed their families in those areas that are not developed. These are citizens who simply use the natural resources to support their lives.”

As an example, Mr. Sophat pointed to a case in which villagers from Stung Treng’s Siem Pang district contacted him Thursday and Friday, saying that military police and the provincial prosecutor had confiscated a small amount of illegally felled timber stored under their home.

“They confiscated two or three pieces of wood,” Mr. Sophat said. “The citizens called me crying.”

Ly Korn, chief of the Siem Pang district Forestry Administration, confirmed that military police and provincial prosecutor Pen Sarath had completed the raid, seizing about one cubic meter of timber from the villagers.

Mr. Korn also said that those villagers, accompanied by about 200 more, smashed the lock at the Siem Pang Forestry Administration office, retrieving the timber, along with two tractors and a boat that had been confiscated from them previously.

He declined, however, to comment on Mr. Sophat’s view of law enforcement in the province.

Likewise, Mr. Sarath, the provincial prosecutor, paid little credence to the assertions made by the former Stung Treng governor.

“This is his opinion,” Mr. Sarath said. “But many authorities have different opinions.”

(Additional reporting Matt Blomberg)

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