GAT Ordered To Pay Royalties for Timber
A Koh Kong court has ruled that a commercial logging company accused of illegally cutting trees and building roads in the Cardamom mountain region did not violate its contract with the government, provincial court and forestry officials said this week.
But the court last week ordered GAT International to pay the government $108,000—the amount the company would have paid in government royalties had it cut the logs with permission, Keom Sun, a court prosecutor, said Wednesday.
Houth Thoung, director of Koh Kong’s agriculture department, said GAT is now allowed to work in its concession area. Forestry Director Ty Sokhun had told GAT early this month to suspend its Koh Kong operations pending the outcome of the court case.
The Malaysian company has the logging rights to a large stretch of the Cardamom mountains in southwestern Cambodia, as well as concession land in Kompong Thom province.
News of the ruling has been slow to filter up to Phnom Penh. The Forest Crime Monitoring Unit could not confirm the outcome of the case with the Koh Kong court, said Patrick Lyng, an adviser to the monitoring unit.
The environmental watchdog Global Witness, whose initial report led to the court case, also was unaware of the ruling.
Houth Thoung said Wednesday he had not yet reported the outcome of the court case to forestry officials in Phnom Penh.
The ruling comes at a sensitive time in relations between Cambodia and its logging concessionaires, as the government tries to curb illegal and unscrupulous activities and shape the companies into a more professional and responsible industry.
Global Witness, charged with monitoring Cambodia’s logging industry, found 777 cut logs in GAT’s concession during an aerial survey May 26. The group claims the logs were cut illegally.
Though the logs are worth several hundred thousand dollars, GAT was ordered by the court to pay $54 per cubic meter for the 2,000 cubic meters of logs.
The company is allowed to keep the felled logs, many of which were used to build bridges for an unauthorized road GAT was carving through the forest on its concession and in the neighboring Samling concession.
GAT said it was cutting the road in order to accurately count the trees on its land, as requested by the Asian Development Bank. But ADB officials and environmental watchdogs dismissed the explanation as an excuse to justify illegal activities.
“They built a road in spite of orders from the forestry department not to do so,” said Orhan Baykal, team leader of an ADB-funded review of Cambodia’s commercial logging sector.
Henry Kong, chairman of the Cambodia Timber Industry Association, said the key to the case may lie in GAT’s master plan for its concession, which was approved two years ago
“The blanket approval for the master plan may have implied approval for construction of the road,” said Kong, who is also managing director of Samling, whose concession neighbors the GAT land. “And you must understand that in constructing of any road through any forested area, trees must be cut.”
The one thing GAT can be blamed for, Kong said, is not asking Samling’s permission before cutting a road into its concession. Kong said the two companies are now negotiating compensation for the trees cut and land cleared in Samling’s concession.
GAT is the largest logging concessionaire operating in the Cardamoms, but it is only one of the threats facing the mountain ecosystem. Conservationists worry that by the time the government moves to protect the Cardamoms—rich in rare species—it will be too late.
As logging companies move further into the mountains, carving wide roads in the forest, access increases substantially.
Settlers, poachers and small-scale illegal loggers can now reach parts of the Cardamoms that were once off limits.