Ministry Reports Massive Logging Operation

Large-scale illegal logging in the country’s largest protected area has been observed by government and World Bank officials, the Minister of Environ­ment reported to Prime Minister Hun Sen in a letter late last month.

In flights on May 12 and May 15 over Virachey National Park, which spans Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng provinces, officials and World Bank representatives were “shocked” to see large stockpiles and widespread logging roads in an area called the dragon’s tail, according to a copy of the letter obtained Monday by The Cam­bodia Daily. The wood was reportedly transported across the border into Laos.

“I would like to inform Samdech Prime Minister that the illegal logging that occurred in the dragon’s tail was large scale and occurred with the involvement of officials at the border and park officials who were stationed there,” Minister Mok Mareth wrote. He could not be reached for comment Monday.

In the letter, he asked for the creation of a joint committee with representatives from the mini­stries of Environment, Interior and Defense, along with Ratanakkiri authorities, to investigate and crack down on logging in the dragon’s tail, which is located in Ratanakkiri and juts into Laos.

Thuk Kroeun Vutha, the Environment Ministry’s undersecretary of state, said Monday that Hun Sen approved the committee on June 8.

Thuk Kroeun Vutha said he was on the first flight over the national park, but said he could not comment on exactly how many trees were cut until there is an investigation. He said that the Ministry of Environment was investigating whether park rangers were involved.

“No park rangers have been suspended,” he said. “We won’t know who is involved until an investigation is conducted.”

Once formed, the committee will thoroughly investigate how much timber was transported and who was behind the business, he said, though he did not yet know when that will be.

General Mao Chandara, deputy director general of national police, which includes border police, said he didn’t know anything about the logging or the involvement of border patrols.

“There are no laws that give [border police] special permission to cut down trees” he said Mon­day. “Their duty is to protect the border.”

Initial attempts to crack down on the observed cross-border forest crime were unsuccessful, Mok Mareth wrote in the letter, because Lao authorities did not confirm whether there were any companies or loggers operating on their side of the border. According to the letter, Laos did admit that there had been timber transport along the border and into Vietnam in the past.

Cambodian representatives from the three ministries and Ratanakkiri who attempted to investigate the area from Attapeu provincial town in Laos were unable to reach the area because of flooding, the minister wrote.

The May 12 flight was funded by the World Bank as part of a $4.91 million project to better manage the park, said Klaus Schmitt, World Bank project adviser, who said he had also received a copy of Mok Mareth’s letter. Schmitt said the logging tracks and stockpiles had cropped up since the last flight in June 2003.

The World Bank has not been directly involved in the investigation, he said, but has merely reported what officials saw on the flight.

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