Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday abolished the country’s flawed system of auctioning off seized illicit timber, saying that in the future all confiscated wood would be handed over to the Education Ministry to build schools and desks for pupils.
The premier also announced that Prey Lang, Southeast Asia’s largest deciduous lowland forest, which stretches across four provinces in central Cambodia, would become a protected area, along with Phnom Kravanh forest in Pursat province.
Speaking at the annual meeting of the Education Ministry in Phnom Penh on Thursday, Mr. Hun Sen said the new wood-recycling initiative was his solution to Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron’s complaint that the ministry did not have enough resources. The prime minister said the country’s current system of dealing with confiscated timber was simply not working.
“In the past, whenever we confiscated, we always found a bidder for exporting. But when they received the export rights, logging still occurred,” Mr. Hun Sen said on Thursday.
“From this day on, all wood that is illegally felled and later seized will no longer be for sale,” he said. “Now stop…. From this day on, we will transfer all seized wood to use in the education sector.”
Although the 2002 Forestry Law stipulates that the government must put all wood seized from illegal loggers up for public auction, there is no evidence the auctions are actually being held, despite the fact that Mr. Hun Sen’s personal assistant heads the committee that arranges them. Instead, timber magnate Try Pheap has received first rights to purchase all seized wood in exchange for a negotiated payment to the state.
The school- and desk-building will start, the prime minister said, with a haul of 30,000 to 40,000 cubic meters of wood that has been confiscated by a special task force led by National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha, which was established in January to root out persistent illegal logging in the country’s northeast.
“If the wood is 30,000 or 40,000 cubic meters, please, Excellency Hang Chuon Naron, manage to use it for building schools—or windows or chairs or tables or building accommodation for teachers. It’s up to the Ministry of Education,” he said.
Mr. Hun Sen also announced that he had granted a joint request from the ministries of environment and agriculture to designate Prey Lang and Phnom Kravanh forests protected areas. Activists have for years been pushing to have the 650,000-hectare Prey Lang forest receive formal protected status, arguing that it is an irreplaceable natural resource.
“We decided to make a number of forests into protected forests, such as Prey Lang forest, which cannot exist like this, so it is now made a protected forest,” he said, adding that forestry activists and local residents—who have held many high-profile marches through Prey Lang to call attention to deforestation and environmental depredation—should join with the government to ensure the protection order is respected.
“Those who have ordained trees or civil society [groups] who have ordained trees by tying monk’s robes [around them], get all of them to join in the movement to protect the forests,” he said.
He encouraged the Environment Ministry to continue suggesting new forests as candidates for protection.
“Any good forests, just make them a protected forest, so then we can keep our forests,” he suggested.
Hoeun Sopheap, a member of the Prey Lang grassroots network, applauded the decision to designate the forest as a protected area but said that it would be best if the grassroots network was allowed to continue its work—including regular forest patrols during which activists confront loggers and seize their equipment.
“We have seen many protected forests with the signature of the king suffer from deforestation for logs, so communities and activities should be allowed to work with government to protect the protected forest areas,” he said.