Forestry watchdog Global Witness reported a major illegal logging operation in Kratie and Mondolkiri provinces on Friday, orchestrated by a timber dealer who used permits signed by high-ranking forestry officials to gain passage for loads of illegal timber.
Citing three Global Witness investigations, the organization alleged that a businesswoman named Sean Leang Chhun, nicknamed Yeay Chhun, had contracted workers and the military to illegally cut trees in Snuol district, Kratie province, and O’Reang district, Mondolkiri province.
She has given legally-questionable permits signed by high-ranking forestry officials and letters with the names of powerful people—including one addressed to Prime Minister Hun Sen—to officials inspecting the timber and logs as authorization for the illegal logging and transport, said Mike Davis of Global Witness.
“The scale of these activities, and the fact that they were allowed to continue uninterrupted in and around the district capital over several months, strongly suggests complicity on the part of local authorities,” the statement said.
Davis said the use of permits, often signed by Forestry Administration Deputy Director Chea Sam Ang, as a cover for illegal logging has become increasingly common since Prime Minister Hun Sen imposed a moratorium on cutting and transporting logs at the end of 2001.
Chea Sam Ang and other forestry and provincial officials said Sunday they were unaware of any illegal activity, but that investigations were under way.
Sean Leang Chhun, whose phone number was obtained by forestry and government officials, could not be reached for comment.
In the most recent investigation, Global Witness uncovered evidence that loggers chopped down at least 40 high-quality trees in Sre Chis and Snuol communes in Snuol district, Kratie province to sell to Sean Leang Chhun.
Global Witness said workers loading the timber into four trucks claimed the wood belonged to Sean Leang Chhun.
A local reported having seen Sean Leang Chhun meeting with the commune chief in Sre Chis the night of April 10, when the trucks left the commune. Sean Leang Chhun accompanied the convoy, Global Witness said, which included other trucks from Mondolkiri, one of which collapsed a bridge in Snuol district.
Forestry Administration officials on Sunday said they were investigating Global Witness’ reports of illegal logging.
Tim Sipha, head of the Forestry Administration’s regional inspectorate which includes Kratie and Mondolkiri provinces, said Sean Leang Chhun had a legal timber business in Mondolkiri but not in Kratie province.
“For Kratie, I think the cutting is not concerned with Yeay Chhun,” he said.
According to Global Witness, Sean Leang Chhun had previously hired military to log high-quality trees within Kratie’s Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary. One of her trucks picked up timber from the sanctuary on March 27, the statement said, and traveled with her in a convoy of six other of her trucks from Mondolkiri in the direction of Kompong Cham province. Eyewitnesses told Global Witness that the trucks carried more than 210 cubic meters of timber in total.
Her workers claimed the transport was authorized by a permit signed March 25. But a copy of the permit revealed it allowed the transport of only 90 cubic meters of timber.
In addition, the permit, signed by the Forestry Administration’s Chea Sam Ang, was issued not to Sean Leang Chhun but to Henry Kong, of Samling Company.
Samling, a logging company that used to have a concession in Mondolkiri and Kratie provinces, pulled out of Cambodia last year and Henry Kong moved to Guyana, according to Global Witness.
Chea Sam Ang, however, said Sunday that Samling requested a transport permit for timber that was cut before the logging moratorium. He denied that the permit had been misused, adding that Sean Leang Chhun had been transporting timber for Samling.
Snuol district Governor Bong Bopharith also denied reports that Sean Leang Chhun was logging in Snuol. “She had a license to transport timber through Snuol district,” he said. “She transported timber from [Mondolkiri’s] Keo Seima district.”
Global Witness, however, said Sean Leang Chhun’s operations in Mondolkiri, where she runs a sawmill, are also illegal.
Locals in O’Reang district told Global Witness that Sean Leang Chhun’s workers cut more than a hundred trees of high-quality timber in the district’s O’Rov forest between July 2003 and March 2004. Global Witness investigators saw 30 recently-felled trees on a visit in April.
To help transport the logs, Global Witness said Sean Leang Chhun has shown authorities a variety of documents, including letters sent by a man named Okhna Louv Hing to Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany, requesting to transport luxury timber.
Global Witness added that Sean Leang Chhun bulldozed a 30 km road through the O’Rov forest, violating the 2002 forestry law, to haul the logs to her sawmill in O’Reang town.
A license for the sawmill, granted in 2002 by the Ministry of Agriculture, stated that she is allowed to process so-called old logs that had been cut illegally and left in the forest.
The alleged cutting and hauling of logs in the O’Rov forest violate Hun Sen’s moratorium, and the license for her sawmill contravenes a Jan 25, 1999 declaration in which Hun Sen said no new licenses could be given for the collection of old timber or logs.
Tim Sipha said Forest Administration investigators went to O’Reang but found only logs that had been cut “a year or two ago.” When asked about pictures of recently-felled trees in the forest, he said the investigation was ongoing. He said he had no reports of any road.
Mondolkiri Governor Tor Soeuth said Sean Leang Chhun had permission to collect old logs and that she had cleared a path of maybe 10 km in length to help her get out the old timber.
Mike Davis of Global Witness said it is “well established practice” to use old log collection as a cover for large-scale illegal logging and processing. He added that the onus is now on the forestry officials who signed these documents to prove that they were not party to illegal logging.