Mystery Blazes Destroy More Seized Timber

Government officials say they are investigating the causes of two separate weekend fires in Mondolkiri province that reportedly burned through hundreds of high-value logs the government had sold to a businessman after confiscating them from a pair of rubber plantations.

Both fires started on Friday and by the time they were extinguished on Sunday, they had burned through about 300 logs on the Dai Thanh plantation and another 200 logs on the property of the former Khmer Angkor plantation, provincial military police commander Sak Sarang said.

cam photo wood
Mondolkiri provincial police and forestry officials measure pieces of luxury wood seized from a logging company in 2014. (Tep Sareth)

The incidents mirror numerous fires that reportedly consumed hundreds of seized logs on several other plantations last year in the months after the government formed a special task force to root out illegal logging and timber stocks across eastern Cambodia.

As with those cases, Mr. Sarang said on Monday that the latest fires reached the logs from the surrounding forest and that authorities did not know whether they started by accident or were deliberately set.

The logs were among the 12,486 cubic meters of unlicensed wood the task force seized on Dai Thanh’s property and 12,833 cubic meters of unlicensed wood it seized on the former property of Khmer Angkor, which sits several kilometers away.

The government has not filed complaints against either company and sold off the wood late last year to Ung Sitatvila, the owner of V.Energy Logistics, for millions of dollars.

Mr. Sarang said the government was not responsible for his losses.

“Our authorities will not be responsible for the wood that was destroyed,” he said. “The company is responsible because it was careless about protecting its property.”

Mr. Sitatvila did not reply to a request for comment.

Eng Hy, spokesman for the National Military Police, which is in charge of the special task force, said the flames destroyed a relatively small share of the logs that had been seized on each plantation and that the water trucks would remain there for the time being in case of more fires.

He said the causes of the fires were under investigation. Asked about the investigations launched into last year’s fires, the spokesman said he was not aware of any results.

The government claims that the task force has effectively stamped out timber trafficking in the east. But rights workers, community groups and conservationists in the area dispute the claim, saying the timber trade has decreased only modestly, stayed level or increased.

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