Agriculture Minister Ouk Rabun on Monday rejected the findings of a new Global Witness report that implicates the government in a vast illegal logging operation run by timber tycoon Try Pheap, claiming that the U.K. environmental rights group was ill-informed of the country’s export rules.
In a report released last week—the product of an eight month, in-depth and undercover investigation based on dozens of interviews and eyewitness accounts—Global Witness lays out Cambodia’s laws on logging and exports and explains the many ways it found Mr. Pheap’s companies to be violating them with impunity.
Speaking to reporters after a three-hour, closed door meeting with the National Assembly’s agriculture commission, Mr. Rabun said the group was simply ignorant of the laws dictating what the country can and cannot send overseas.
“Our government has a clear process for exporting timber, but Global Witness does not know about the process,” the minister said, without going into any details.
“We have not conspired with Try Pheap’s companies to export timber. We have a clear process. If we were conspiring, they would not have been able to take pictures of the trucks at the port or transporting the wood,” he added.
Global Witness’ report is accompanied by photographs its researchers took of Mr. Pheap’s depots and his containers at the Sihanoukville Autonomous Port full of Siamese rosewood.
The harvesting of Siamese rosewood in natural forests is banned in Cambodia, and since 2013, the government has required a special license for its export in unprocessed form. Despite the new report’s evidence of unprocessed rosewood ready to be shipped out of Sihanoukville, the government has not issued a single license for its export since 2013.
Global Witness’ researchers also saw Mr. Pheap’s company exporting logs wider than 25 cm, another breach of Cambodia’s export rules.
Opposition lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang, who chairs the National Assembly’s agriculture commission, told reporters Monday that Mr. Rabun was asked by his commission to help families locked in land disputes with private firms to settle their cases outside the country’s politicized courts.
Mr. Rabun said he had advised ethnic minority groups to apply for communal land titles, which are designed specifically to protect their ancestral land from private companies, and that the government was constantly reminding developers not to clear disputed territory.
The government has handed out only a handful of communal land titles since making the option available more than 12 years ago, however, and private developers regularly clear land that is claimed by local residents.