In what appears to be the government’s first official admission that a crackdown on the illicit timber trade is failing, the Agriculture Ministry on Tuesday ordered its provincial offices to address what it called a recent spike in illegal logging and trafficking.
The order comes a day after the release of a damning report that exposed an industrial-scale timber laundering operation started late last year by Vietnamese companies and corrupt Cambodian authorities in Ratanakkiri province.
Since Prime Minister Hun Sen put his National Military Police chief in charge of a crackdown on eastern Cambodia’s rampant illegal logging in January last year, authorities have claimed to have all but shut down the black market trade despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
In a statement posted to its website on Tuesday, the Agriculture Ministry admitted that illegal logging and timber trafficking in some provinces has picked up since the ministry’s Forestry Administration, which previously answered straight to national headquarters, was placed under the authority of provincial governments a year ago.
Since then, the statement said, “forest clearing and the transportation of illegally logged timber has resurfaced in some of the provinces.”
“Agriculture departments in the provinces have to cooperate closely with provincial authorities to get tough and curb forest clearing and claiming, suppress all forms of forest crime and take effective action,” it added.
The statement does not elaborate on the nature of the illegal activity or where it was happening, and Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon was no more helpful.
“It is a reminder to provincial departments to prevent clearing and claiming of the forests that we seized from companies, because we received some tips that forest clearing has continued,” he said.
The minister was referring to the dozens of Economic Land Concessions (ELCs)— vast tracts of state land leased out to private companies for a variety of uses—the government has canceled since 2015 for breaking laws and contracts.
He denied that the statement was a reaction to the report by the U.K.’s Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) released on Monday on its undercover investigation into a surge in illegal logging in Ratanakkiri’s protected areas.
According to the report, Cambodian authorities in the province have been earning millions of dollars in kickbacks to help Vietnamese companies log the areas since late last year and drive hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of timber across the border, flouting a government ban on all timber exports to Vietnam.
Soy Sona, the head of Ratanakkiri’s agriculture department, said the province experienced a modest spike in the illegal timber trade ahead of last month’s Khmer New Year holiday, but insisted it had been stamped out.
“In March and April, before the Khmer New Year, we saw some timber transport but we cracked down on it,” he said.
Now, he added, “only motorbikes are transporting timber. We are very strict about this.”
Provincial officials have also denied the EIA’s findings.
Environment Minister Say Sam Al, who previously denied the mounting evidence of the export ban’s failure, has declined to comment on the claims until his staff finishes parsing the new report.