In a rare move, the National Police on Monday leveled accusations of illegal logging against a number of government-granted economic land concessions (ELCs) in the eastern province of Mondolkiri, singling out a Chinese-owned rubber plantation and wealthy businessman Soeng Sam Ol.
Despite regular reports from villagers and rights groups of illegal logging by concession-holders and well-connected businessmen across the country, it is highly unusual for the government to name and shame specific companies and their business partners for the crime.
A statement posted to the website of the National Police on Monday, however, names three offending ELCs in Mondolkiri, but focuses on the Dai Thanh concession—an 8,700-hectare rubber plantation inside the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary—and holds the protected area’s director among those responsible.
“The Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary in Mondolkiri province is facing heavy logging, but its director, Samrong Divichet, has not taken action against the illegal logging,” the statement said, going on to blame Mr. Sam Ol for the logging.
“Oknha Soeng Sam Ol is known to be involved in the logging inside the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary. Mr. Sam Ol used a trick by using the investment project of the Dai Thanh firm to cut the trees and transport the wood to sell on the international market,” it said.
Oknha is an honorific reserved for those who donate at least $100,000 to the state.
“Some minor timber dealers have complained that Oknha Soeng Sam Ol ordered his manager, Khon, to get people to cut trees in the healthy forest of the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary,” the statement said.
“Those people have used hundreds of chainsaws to cut down the trees every day, and they have transported the wood…to the Dai Thanh ELC to make it [appear to be] wood that legally belongs to the company. The company has transported the wood to Vietnam through Kratie province and some unofficial checkpoints along the border with Tbong Khmum province.”
The statement also cites reports from officials in Mondolkiri’s Koh Nhek district leveling similar timber laundering allegations against the Cambodian-owned Master K Sun concession—also located inside the Phnom Prich sanctuary—and the Singapore-owned Unigreen concession.
The statement makes no mention of what, if any, action authorities plan to take against Mr. Sam Ol, Mr. Divichet, or any of the named companies. A spokesman for the National Police could not be reached.
Illegal logging carries a fine and a prison sentence of up to five years.
Yich Samethy, who identified himself as a lawyer for Dai Thanh, said he did not know enough about the company’s activities to comment. Representatives for the other two companies could not be reached.
Mr. Divichet, the sanctuary director, claimed that his rangers had thwarted many illegal loggers—though he said they always managed to escape—but that he did not know whether any of the criminals were working for Mr. Sam Ol.
“I am not sure if Oknha Soeng Sam Ol is logging trees outside the ELC because we have never encountered it and we have no evidence to prove that he has,” he said. “But I have seen a lot of illegal logging and stopped [loggers] many, many times from logging trees outside the economic land concession.”
Mr. Divichet said Mr. Sam Ol was granted a license by the Finance Ministry to clear the Dai Thanh concession of trees and has been selling wood both in the province and across the border in Vietnam, paying the requisite taxes to the state.
Van Danin, a provincial police spokesman, said he was neither aware of the National Police statement nor the allegations against Mr. Sam Ol and Dai Thanh.
“It is difficult for us to get to the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary because we need to travel through Kratie province, and when we get to the forest, the loggers escape,” he said.
“But my police chief will send a group of armed officers to the area tomorrow to investigate and if we find the illegal loggers, we will take action against them.”
Sao Sopheap, a spokesman for the Ministry of Environment, which manages the sanctuary, said he knew of the illegal logging allegations in general, but was not aware of the new claims by the National Police.
“We are working quite hard to do the patrolling,” he said. “The latest report, we have to look at what is going on and take appropriate action.”
Bleuk Mal, an environmental activist working inside the sanctuary, said he saw the illegal loggers at work just three days ago, and that they told him they were working for Mr. Sam Ol.
“Mr. Sam Ol is cutting down the trees inside the ELC and also outside the ELC by using the name of the Dai Thanh company,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)