SIEM PANG DISTRICT, Stung Treng province – For the elite few granted the right to level swathes of woodland in the north of this remote province, the timber trade is worth a fortune.
For the Forestry Administration—the government body charged with policing logging—business is also booming.
While commercial timber magnates such as Try Pheap chop down Cambodia’s forests at an alarming rate, local authorities here are profiting from the extortion of small-time loggers who have long relied on the forests to survive.
According to villagers in Siem Pang district, Forestry Administration officials are making a cottage industry out of arbitrarily confiscating timber from local residents and seizing their machinery, holding it for ransom until the poor farmers can muster the cash to buy it back.
It’s not just the villagers who are complaining. Stung Treng’s provincial prosecutor and military police commander say these local forestry officials—often backed by the military police—are operating outside the law.
Nan Nang, a 33-year-old farmer from Sre Sambor commune, was at the Siem Pang Forestry Administration office on Wednesday to pay $600 to officials to release his tractor, which was confiscated in January.
“The Forestry Administration and military police arrested me for transporting three pieces of wood and they took my tractor,” said Mr. Nang. “I wanted to use that wood to build a bed and a door for my house.”
Mr. Nang had cut down the relatively small haul of luxury Thnong timber—0.7 cubic meters—from his own farmland, as he and his family have done for as long as he can remember.
But Sras Sarin, deputy division chief of Siem Pang Forestry Administration, who was sitting near Mr. Nang at the office, said times have changed. He said that with the rise of the commercial timber trade and the thinning of the area’s forests, only a select few could be permitted to cut down the most sought-after trees.
“It is hard for people here who do not understand the law,” he said. “When we crack down on them, it affects their livelihoods, but we cannot allow everyone to cut down trees.”
When his tractor was seized earlier this year, Mr. Nang was told to thumbprint a document stating that the vehicle would become property of the Forestry Administration until the fine is paid.
While Mr. Nang eventually gathered the $600 to get his machine back, others have not been so lucky.
On February 20, on the outskirts of Siem Pang, in Prek Meas commune, 23-year-old Thoeun Pang drove out of the forest with six slabs of Thnong loaded on his tractor.
“The military police pointed their guns at me and said, ‘Please little boy, just bring the timber to the [Forestry Administration] and then you can go home,’” Mr. Pang said.
“But when I arrived [at the forestry office], they took my tractor and forced me to thumbprint a document,” he said.
The document gave the Forestry Administration ownership of his tractor until he paid them $1,580, he said, just less than the price of a new tractor.
“They said if I don’t pay, then they will send me to court,” Mr. Pang explained, saying that the amount of money authorities were demanding was an impossible sum. “I am a farmer. Without my tractor I have no way to make the money to get my tractor back.”
Pen Sarath, Stung Treng’s provincial prosecutor, said that forestry matters are outside his jurisdiction. And while claiming no knowledge of specific disputes, Mr. Sarath said Forestry Administration officials had no authority to confiscate trucks or tractors.
“According to Forestry Law, Forestry Administration officials can only confiscate the timber and fine the offender,” he said. “They have no right to confiscate the machinery.”
As the practice has become more common, farmers are getting increasingly angry. Last week, some 200 villagers stormed the Forestry Administration office here and took back two confiscated tractors and a boat.
But although logging puts them at risk of temporarily losing their assets, many of the poor villagers are willing to take the chance, in exchange for cash.
A number of farmers said they work informally for the Try Pheap Import Export company, whose representatives occasionally visit villages and pay $50 to take away any Thnong logs the villagers have collected. In Stung Treng City, a cubic meter of Thnong can fetch up to $800.
Try Pheap Import Export has the exclusive right to purchase all luxury timber cut in economic land concessions in Ratanakkiri province, and is reportedly negotiating a similar deal with the government in Stung Treng province.
Try Pheap’s company also has its own land concession in Siem Pang district—covering much of Prek Meas commune. Yok Meng, a representative for Try Pheap in the province, said that villagers have been encouraged to log inside the concession.
“I don’t know about the crackdown, but we pay many villagers who cut [trees] inside the concession,” Mr. Meng said.
Ny Khoun, a 33-year-old from Prek Meas commune, is another villager that claims to have been sourcing timber for “the company”—Try Pheap Import Export—when local officials apprehended him.
“They pointed their guns at me and forced me to hand over my phone—maybe they were worried that I would call the company to intervene,” Mr. Khoun said.
“Sometimes when they find us, they say if we are working for the company we have to give them some of the money. Sometimes they confiscate the wood and the tractors and take it to the Forestry Administration,” he added. “Now they are demanding 3.3 million riel [about $830] to get my tractor back.”
At the Forestry Administration office, hundreds of pieces of luxury wood lie stacked amongst about a dozen confiscated vehicles. The wood will now be put up for auction. Its buyer may well be Try Pheap, who last year purchased the right from the government to collect nearly 5,000 cubic meters of luxury wood confiscated nationwide.
Mr. Sarin, the deputy forestry chief, declined to discuss the issue when asked to explain how his office decides exactly who can log, and what laws allow his officers to seize machinery and demand a hefty fine for its return.
“I don’t want to talk about this,” Mr. Sarin said. “You have to ask my boss.”
Despite repeated requests, Siem Pang Forestry Administration chief Ly Korn was not available for comment.
When told that his forces were allegedly aiding in the extortion of farmers found to be logging, Stung Treng Military Police commander Ieng Vandy said he knew of the racket, but that military police had no business taking part in it.
“The military police do not have orders to be involved in confiscations or crackdowns. Their job is to protect forestry officials, court officials and the people,” he said.
“The military police should not confiscate the wood, the machinery or anything else from the offender,” he added. “The one who gets the benefits from cracking down is the Forestry Administration.”