The government claims not to have issued a single permit to export Siamese rosewood since it agreed to strict new trade rules for the exceedingly rare trees, and says it will look into a U.N.-managed database that states otherwise.
Since March 2013, signatories to the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) have been required to issue a special permit whenever exporting rosewood logs, sawn timber or veneer. To approve the permits, the countries must ensure the exports will not harm the species’ chances of survival.
According to the database the U.N. uses to track CITES trade, Cambodia exported more than 8,200 cubic meters of rosewood in 2013 and 2014, the last year for which data is available, almost all of it to Vietnam. According to the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which last week published a report about suspicious rosewood exports from Cambodia and Laos, the same database shows that China and Vietnam imported more than 12,000 cubic meters from Cambodia over the same period.
Either way, the wood, most of it destined for China to feed the country’s appetite for high-end furniture, likely sold for hundreds of million of dollars.
According to EIA, Cambodia and Laos have never assessed their rosewood supplies, which would make it impossible for them to determine whether the exports were damaging the stock’s chances of survival and, therefore, render any permits they issued a breach of CITES rules.
Since the EIA report was released, however, Ty Sokhun, head of the government’s CITES management authority, said the Cambodian government had not issued a single CITES permit to export rosewood since the rules took effect in 2013.
Mr. Sokhun, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Agriculture, said he was also not aware of any assessment of the country’s rosewood stocks. Ironically, Prime Minister Hun Sen fired Mr. Sokhun as head of the ministry’s Forestry Administration in 2010, ostensibly for failing to curb the country’s rampant illegal logging trade.
Environmental protection groups have said that decades of illegal logging has drastically depleted Cambodia’s rosewood stocks or nearly wiped them out, and that illegal logging forays into Thailand help keep the trade alive.
Suon Phalla, an officer with Cambodia’s CITES management authorities, said any permits approving the export of rosewood from the country were fake.
“Since June 2013 until now, Cambodia CITES management has never issued any permits for exporting rosewood to any countries, including Vietnam,” he said in an email.
“All timbers were illegally exported. If any CITES permits [were] used, they…must be counterfeited permits,” he added. “The CITES management authority of Cambodia will clarify this issue with [the] CITES secretariat in Geneva.”
The CITES secretariat did not reply to a request for comment.
According to the body that runs the CITES database, the U.N. Environment Program’s U.K.-based World Conservation Monitoring Center, the export figures are based on individual countries’ own reports.
Becky Price, an assistant program officer for the center, said countries report imports and exports of all CITES-listed species once a year, along with the serial numbers of all permits. But she said the serial numbers were confidential and that she did not know whether the reports were checked for compliance with CITES rules.
EIA senior forest campaigner Jago Wadley said his agency was wary of the veracity of the Cambodian government’s timber export claims, explaining that there was little independent oversight of the trade the U.N. convention is meant to regulate.
“Unfortunately, CITES relies on its member parties to implement its rules, including both exporters and importers. Where they fail, CITES fails. The key countries involved in this failure are Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and China, who between them sell and buy virtually all Siamese rosewood on earth,” he said.
In its report, EIA urges the CITES secretariat to investigate its allegations against Cambodia and Laos, and suspend all convention-related trade by the countries if corroborated.
Mr. Wadley said the secretariat had imposed a trade suspension on Laos before, and that he was hopeful a planned mission to Laos would help expose ongoing violations.
CITES trade data for 2015 is not yet available. According to Vietnamese customs data obtained by the NGO Forest Trends, however, Cambodia continued to export thousands of cubic meters of rosewood to the country through 2015 and into 2016.