About 200 cubic meters of illegally logged luxury timber–worth a total of at least $80,000 in Cambodia and much more in Vietnam or China–was seized by authorities in Ratanakkiri province in three separate incidents on Saturday and Monday, a human rights worker and local officials said yesterday.
A group led by provincial court deputy prosecutor Ros Saram seized 170 cubic meters of luxury grade Thnong and Neang Nuon wood on Saturday in Kon Mom district’s Ta Ong commune after the stockpile was discovered by villagers, said Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc.
“The crackdown came…after I received information from the community,” Mr Bonnar said. “Then I intervened by reporting to court officials and the provincial council as well as to the forestry administration for immediate confiscation.”
Thnong and Neang Nuon wood sells for $400 to $500 per cubic meter in Cambodia, and for as much as $1,000 to $1,500 a meter in Vietnam or China, he said.
Also on Saturday, the same authorities confiscated dozens of cubic meters of Thnong wood hidden in the jungle in Banlung city’s Laban Siek commune, according to Mr Bonnar.
And on Monday, forestry administration officials confiscated Kra Nhuung wood hidden beneath bags of cassava in a truck heading to Banlung city from the nearby Vuen Sai district.
After a 2002 moratorium on commercial logging, only the Agriculture Ministry may authorize the felling of timber on a case-by-case basis. The harvesting of luxury grade timber, however, is prohibited in all cases.
According to Mr Bonnar, Kra Nhuung, also luxury grade, is worth much more than the other types of confiscated woods, selling for $5,000 per cubic meter in Cambodia, and for anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 in Vietnam and China.
Mr Bonnar said 20 cubic meters of the Kra Nhuung was seized, but Leng Yu, Forestry Administration chief for Banlung city and Kon Mon and Lumphat districts, said his officials only found three cubic meters.
Mr Saram, the prosecutor who led Saturday’s seizures, could not be reached for comment, but provincial council member Sok Horm confirmed Mr Bonnar’s account and praised the confiscations.
“It is a big concern, the increase in wood smuggling here,” he said.
Although he said he was ignorant of exact value of the wood species, he said Mr Bonnar’s figures seemed about right.
Mr Bonnar accused government officials of involvement in his province’s illegal logging trade.
“Smuggling of luxury woods here is a systematic crime,” he said. “In particular, it is a crime that has a lot of officials and other forces involved.”
“Logs differ from drugs,” he said. “Drugs can be hidden somewhere on the body of the smugglers. But logs can never be hidden in the shirt. So how can officials not be aware of smuggling? They have an interest in such smuggling,” Mr Bonnar said.
Neither Mr Yu nor Mr Horm would comment on the accusation of official involvement in the illegal timber trade, but Veun Sai district police chief Poeu Nouthang said Mr Bonnar was correct.
“I would not point to specific units but I can say there are a lot of officials involved with log smuggling,” he said, adding that villagers also cut trees, but only on a small scale, such as for house materials.
Some villagers “venture on purpose into the jungle to combat logging,” reporting any activity to civil society, said a Kon Mom district villager who only gave his name as Muth. “Other villagers just go into the forest to find resources and discover the logging accidentally.”
The amount of wood confiscated by the Forestry Administration in Banlung city and Kon Mon and Lumphat districts tripled from 2008 to 2009, going from 100 to 300 cubic meters, according to Mr Yu, the Forestry Administration chief for the city and the two districts.
“We sometimes confiscate sawn logs that smugglers transported from other districts in the province to dump in the districts and city within my jurisdiction,” he said.
“We will bring the case to the court for any cases that [illegal timber] owners deny to pay a fine,” Mr Yu said, adding that the owner of the truck transporting the Kra Nhuung wood has already agreed to pay a fine.
When asked the amount the smuggler had been fined, Mr Yu would only say that fines are three times the selling price per cubic meter of the wood.
Authorities have no suspects in the other two smuggling cases, according to Mr Bonnar.