siem reap town – On April 10 a truck loaded with sawn timber left Oddar Meanchey province with a Forestry Administration-issued permit to haul wood to Kandal province.
Around 10 that evening, the timber-laden truck collapsed through a steel bridge near Banteay Srei temple in Siem Reap province, plunging into the riverbed below and killing two male passengers.
On that same ill-fated Saturday night, another permit-carrying, timber-loaded truck, this time traveling from Mondolkiri province, smashed through a 30-meter steel bridge in Pi Thnou commune, Snuol district, Kratie province.
How many trucks were crossing the bridges at the time of both accidents, what caused the bridges to collapse, why the trucks were traveling at night and whether the timber was legally cut vary, depending on whom you ask. Eyewitnesses, NGOs, provincial officials and the Forestry Administration all tell different stories.
The confusion is somewhat representative of Cambodia’s timber trade more than two years after Prime Minister Hun Sen outlawed logging nationwide. Since then, the legalities and scope of the trade remain unclear.
In the Siem Reap accident, three trucks hauling timber were traveling in a convoy, said Sok Sun Lin, director of the province’s Public Works Department. The final truck, hauling a massive 50-ton load, collapsed the bridge, he said.
Local villagers confirmed the report, and an eyewitness said he saw two other timber-laden trucks, which had not yet crossed the broken bridge, turn around and head back in the direction of Oddar Meanchey.
Banteay Srei forestry officials, however, said the truck that collapsed the bridge was traveling alone, and blamed the collapse on the bridge’s dilapidated condition. The forestry officials refused to disclose their names, saying they were afraid they would get in trouble with their superiors.
Oun Vong, Banteay Srei’s district governor, cited official permits as evidence the timber was legal and that its transport was authorized.
The permit, shown to reporters, authorized a company called Powerlink to transport just 20-cubic meters of construction-grade timber—about one truck-load—from Anlong Veng district to Ang Snuol district in Kandal province. It was signed by Chea Sam Ang, deputy director of the Forestry Administration. It did not mention where the timber was cut.
“If the timber hadn’t had a permit, probably all the forestry officials here would have been dismissed,” a Banteay Srei forestry official said.
Four forestry officials were suspended after the bridge collapse for not reporting the incident in a timely manner—not because of doubts about the origin of the timber, said Than Sarath, deputy director of the Forestry Administration’s public affairs unit.
Mike Davis of forestry watchdog Global Witness alleged that it was “nearly impossible” for the wood to have been legally cut in Anlong Veng. The district is a hot spot for illegal logging, he said.
Chea Sam Ang refused to comment on the bridge collapse and the timber, directing inquiries to the Forestry Administration’s public affairs unit.
Than Sarath said he wasn’t sure where the wood was cut or why the permit was issued, but said Monday that the incident is still under investigation.
The Forestry Administration is not investigating the bridge collapse in Kratie, said Than Sarath, explaining he had not received reports of the collapse. Tim Sipha, forestry chief for the Mekong region, denied reports of the collapse last week. But other Snuol district officials confirmed the accident.
Snuol district Governor Bong Bopharith said he did not know how many trucks were traveling in the convoy, but the truck that collapsed the bridge was overloaded with 27 cubic meters of timber. However, local villagers say that the truck was one of several traveling in a convoy.
The truck’s permit was issued to a woman known as Yeay Chhun, who, Bong Bopharith said, paid for the bridge to be repaired.
“She had an agreement with the military engineers in Mondulkiri and they repaired the bridge,” he said.
Global Witness investigations have linked Yeay Chhun to numerous logging operations in Kratie and Mondolkiri provinces and have alleged that she has underreported the amount of timber being transported in the past.
Provincial and forestry officials claimed they did not to have any additional information about Yeay Chhun.