SESAN DISTRICT, Stung Treng province – Filthy trucks loaded with luxury timber rule the red-earth roads in this heavily deforested district.
Each day, dozens of 10-wheelers bounce along the pot-holed roads, carting logs of the much-sought Thnong timber. And while some of the cargo is legal, much of it is not.
A powerful conglomerate, headed by Australian-educated tycoon Kith Meng, chairman of Royal Group, has carte blanche to fell and sell timber inside a 36,000-hectare reservoir here.
That reservoir is set to become the catchment area of the 400-MW Lower Sesan II hydropower dam in 2017, when a 75-meter-high wall is completed about 1.5 km downstream from the confluence of the Sesan and Srepok rivers and the cleared land becomes a water basin.
But, for now, forest monitors here say little—if any—clearing of land is happening inside the Sesan reservoir. Instead, they say, the forests to the north are being looted, with the reservoir used as a vehicle to launder illegally sourced wood.
“Sometimes, I can count 30 trucks in one day bringing timber across the river from Siem Pang [district] and into the reservoir,” said Srekor commune chief Siek Mekong, who lives inside the reservoir and devotes much of his time to monitoring the movements of illegal loggers.
“The wood is stored in depots here and once it is inside, there is no way to tell where it has come from,” he said, adding that the depots were guarded by plainclothes men armed with AK-47 assault rifles.
Mr. Mekong, who was elected as a Sam Rainsy Party commune chief, estimated that each truck carries at least 10-cubic meters of timber. Good quality Thnong can fetch up to $800 a cubic meter in Cambodia, before being fashioned into furniture or ornaments.
In January 2013, the Royal Group, which in partnership with China’s Hydrolancang International Energy company will construct the Lower Sesan II, signed off on a deal for another Kith Meng firm, Ang & Associates Lawyers Company, to jointly clear the land with a company owned by Sok Vanna, the brother of Sokimex founder Sok Kong.
The deal stipulated that the land would be cleared over three years: 10,000 hectares in 2013, and 13,000 hectares each in 2014 and 2015.
However, a comparison of satellite images of the Sesan II reservoir from March 2013—before the first reports of trees being cut—and May 2014 shows no evidence of land being cleared.
“Inside the reservoir, we see no clearing of land,” said Meach Mean, coordinator of the 3S Rivers Protection Network.
“But we know that they export wood [outside of the reservoir] because we see many trucks leaving with a lot of wood,” he said, adding that at least 10 truckloads of luxury timber were leaving the Sesan II reservoir each day.
“It used to be much more but it has slowed down. Maybe the wood in the forest is almost finished.”
Like Mr. Mekong, Mr. Mean says that much of the illegal timber comes from Siem Pang district, where the majority of the land is split three ways—almost equally—between a land concession owned by businessman Mong Reththy, mining exploration concessions held by Angkor Gold and the protected Virachey National Park.
Siem Pang district is located just north of Sesan district.
In Siem Pang district’s Sekong commune—on the western bank of the Sekong River and just a few kilometers from the southern limits of Virachey—teams of men rest in hammocks, waiting for the next shipment of timber to appear on the opposite bank.
When it does, it is loaded onto boats, shipped across the river and then dragged up the steep muddy incline before being loaded onto trucks and carted away for laundering through the Lower Sesan II reservoir, according to Mr. Mekong and Mr. Mean.
Most of the men working in the log-retrieval teams declined to say who they were working for, where the timber was going or where it had come from.
But at one of the camps, where about a dozen slabs of Thnong had just been pulled up the slippery bank via truck-mounted winch, a man who spoke English but declined to give his name claimed to be working for timber magnate Try Pheap.
“We will take this wood to a depot in Stung Treng for Okhna Try Pheap,” he said.
However, Yok Meng, Try Pheap Import Export’s representative in Stung Treng province, said that his company did not bring any wood across the Sekong River.
He said the only logging that the company does in Siem Pang district is in Mr. Reththy’s rubber concession located to the west of the Sekong River.
“Those allegations are completely wrong,” Mr. Meng said of the man who claimed to be bringing timber across the river for Try Pheap.
“These are middlemen and opportunists who hide behind Mr. Okhna’s [Try Pheap’s] company name to do their own logging business.”
Forestry Administration officials in Siem Pang district declined to comment on the source, destination or legality of the timber being shipped across the Sekong River.
Chheang Tola, chief of the Stung Treng Forestry Administration cantonment, and Tith Samnang, head of the forestry office in Sesan district, also declined to comment on issues relating to Royal Group or the reservoir.
Mr. Meng, the Royal Group chairman, is known to be close with Prime Minister Hun Sen and often accompanies government officials on high-level diplomatic trips abroad as the president of the Cambodia Chamber of Commerce.
In the National Assembly last month, CPP lawmaker Loy Sophat, the former governor of Stung Treng province, said local level officials in the area dare not interfere with the activities of powerful business moguls, and described illegal logging in the area as “out of control.”
“Some powerful people escape the law and take the opportunity to cut wood inside Virachey National Park and other areas and then transport them to this area [Sesan II],” Mr. Sophat said.
In response to Mr. Sophat’s claims that powerful people were using the Sesan reservoir to launder illegally sourced timber, National Assembly President Heng Samrin has requested that Mr. Hun Sen summon Mines and Energy Minister Suy Sem for questioning at the Assembly on June 19.
Attempts over the past two weeks to track down statistics, or even acknowledgement, of logging in or around the Sesan II reservoir proved fruitless.
Chan Ang, executive secretary general of Sokimex and assistant to Sok Vanna, who was granted the right to clear the reservoir and sell the timber, said: “This is a misunderstanding. Sok Vanna is not involved in clearing any reservoir, we work with petroleum.”
Keo Sorithya, director of Ang & Associates, which was to share the job of clearing the reservoir, said: “Tom Pianka is in charge of that. He is the [Lower Sesan II] project manager.”
Mr. Pianka claimed he was not the project manager, though revealed that he does work for Royal Group. “Talk to Meng, that’s all I can say,” he said.
Mr. Meng twice hung up on reporters, and then referred questions about his private company to a government body: “Please talk to the Ministry of Mines and Energy,” Mr. Meng said via text.
Mines and Energy Minister Mr. Sem and other ministry officials could not be reached for comment.
Back inside the reservoir, where Mr. Mekong can hear the rumble of the loggers’ trucks from his timber home, the commune chief was unsurprised at the lack of accountability surrounding the pillaging of another of Cambodia’s forests.
“No one can stop the loggers,” Mr Mekong said. “There is no enforcement of the law.”
“At local level we cannot stop them. At provincial level, they just take bribes from the company.
“Every month, we meet at the district level to discuss how logging is out of control but there is nothing we can do,” Mr. Mekong said. “Ministers, Council of Ministers, Prime Minister—the logging network goes all the way to the top.”
© 2014, Matt Blomberg. All rights reserved.