Several months after forestry officials and NGOs reported illegal logging in Kratie and Mondolkiri provinces orchestrated by a businesswoman, the Forestry Administration has issued some half dozen permits authorizing the transport of her timber and forestry organizations allege that she continues to be involved in illegal logging.
Chea Sam Ang, the Forestry Administration’s deputy director, signed at least six permits—all obtained by The Cambodia Daily—that were used by businesswoman Sean Leang Chhun to transport timber.
Those permits were signed after Mondolkiri foresters reported her illegal logging operations, NGO officials said.
In late March and early April, forestry officials confiscated timber and suspended operations at her sawmill in O’Reang district.
“Forestry Administration conservation teams discovered the illegal logging, reported it to the Forestry Administration and responded by closing down the sawmill,” said Joe Walston, director of Wildlife Conservation Society, which funds a management project in the area. “For permits to subsequently be issued allowing the export of this timber is extremely disturbing.”
One permit, signed April 26 by Chea Sam Ang, allowed Sean Leang Chhun to transport approximately 88 cubic meters of the confiscated timber from her sawmill in Mondolkiri to Kandal province.
Despite repeated efforts, Sean Leang Chhun could not be reached for comment this week.
Asked several times in the past two weeks why Chea Sam Ang has continued to sign permits used by Sean Leang Chhun after reports of her involvement in illegal logging, he has repeatedly declined to comment.
Chheng Kim Sun, director of the Forest Management office, who signed several of the permits with Chea Sam Ang, said they are legal. His office is in charge of documentation submitted to procure transport permits.
“Everything I have done is according to the law,” Chheng Kim Sun said.
Forestry Administration Director Ty Sokhun also said the permits are legal. He denied the reports by foresters and a May 21 statement from forestry watchdog Global Witness alleging that Sean Leang Chhun was involved in illegal logging.
In the statement, Global Witness charged that Sean Leang Chhun contracted workers and the military to illegally log in Kratie’s Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary and Mondolkiri’s Seima Biodiversity Conservation area, and that she used permits signed by Chea Sam Ang to transport the loads of illegal timber. Some of those permits were issued in the name of Henry Kong, a representative of Samling Logging Co, though Samling pulled out of the country at the end of last year, and Kong was transferred to Guyana.
At least five permits were issued after the Global Witness report. They were also issued in other names, but presented by Sean Leang Chhun in person, said Mike Davis of Global Witness, citing eyewitness reports.
In late June, Sean Leang Chhun presented three permits to officials in Prey Veng province, about 15 km from the Vietnamese border, Davis said. The permits authorized the transport of timber to Kandal province and were dated June 23. They were signed by Chea Sam Ang and issued in the name of Song Ewe Kiong, listed as a representative of Samling.
Meanwhile, Global Witness site investigations, interviews with locals and photographs indicate that Sean Leang Chhun’s illegal logging operations continue unhindered, David said Wednesday.
She is operating a sawmill illegally in Chhlong district, Kratie province, he alleged. The Ministry of Agriculture authorized the transfer of a sawmill-operating permit from her sawmill in Chhlong to the one in Mondulkiri’s O’Reang district in 2002, but the Kratie sawmill was still operating in late June, Davis said, when Global Witness interviewed locals and photographed the site.
“It seems that there has been absolutely no interruption in her business,” Davis said.
In May, Forestry officials said investigations into the allegations were under way, but how and if the investigations have proceeded is unclear.
Tim Sipha, chief of the inspectorate that includes Kratie and Mondolkiri, said foresters filed a claim on April 1 regarding the illegal logging in Mondolkiri. He said they did not investigate Sean Leang Chhun’s involvement because that “was up to the prosecutor.”
Several articles in the forestry law, however, indicate that foresters are responsible for investigating offenders in forest crimes.
Mondolkiri Provincial Court Prosecutor Sak Sorn said he received a complaint earlier this month charging that Sean Leang Chhun transported old logs without permits, but was unaware of the complaint issued on April 1.
Mondolkiri Governor Tor Soeuth, however, said several weeks ago that an investigation had been conducted, but officials found no evidence of wrongdoing. Kratie Governor Loy Sophat denied Sean Leang Chhun was operating her sawmill in Chhlong, but said it had processed a few old logs.
Representatives of the World Bank, which has funded the forest concession management project for which Chea Sam Ang is project director, did not respond to questions earlier this week regarding Chea Sam Ang’s role in the project and any investigation into his signing of permits.
After expressing hope for reform with the new government, World Bank spokeswoman Kimberly Versak said in an e-mail: “Overall regarding the forest sector, we are disappointed with some of these developments and had hoped for greater progress in law enforcement, and with the [Forestry Administration] that they are more forthcoming toward the media and the public at large.”
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)