The country director for SL International Ltd, a subsidiary of the Malaysia-based Samling Group, confirmed on Monday that the timber giant is preparing to pull out of Cambodia, abandoning logging concessions in Koh Kong, Kratie and Mondolkiri provinces.
But despite preparations, such as selling off more than half of Samling’s stockpiled logs, the withdrawal is not yet certain, said Henry Kong, who also chairs the Cambodia Timber Industry Association.
He said Samling is still trying to negotiate for more favorable operating conditions with the government, but the government has not responded to its requests so far. The post-election standoff could be hindering the process, he said.
Kong declined to comment on conditions Samling would deem favorable, saying they “should remain a subject of negotiation.”
“It’s an ongoing dispute over the original investment agreement,” Kong said.
According to the Samling Group’s Web site, the company arrived in Cambodia in August 1994. It also holds concessions in China, Papua New Guinea, Guyana and New Zealand. The Web site said Samling’s concessions in Cambodia total about 740,000 hectares.
According to a Department of Forestry and Wildlife document from 2002, Samling had 31.9 million cubic meters of stockpiled timber, which would amount to about $2 million in royalties owed the government.
Kong declined to disclose who had bought “more than half” of that timber, but said Samling has paid all royalties owed.
Should Samling leave Cambodia, its forest concessions will be returned to government control and its infrastructure improvements, such as bridges and roads, will be handed over as well, he said.
One of those improvements, a road from a Samling camp in Kratie’s Chhlong district to Mondolkiri, cuts through the Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary. In clearing that road and widening existing stretches, Samling was felling timber illegally, said Marcus Hardtke, who worked for the country’s former forest monitor, Global Witness.
Hardtke said smaller tracks splintered off from that road, connecting it with the concession. Samling “basically opened up the whole sanctuary to illegal logging,” he said Tuesday.
“If Samling goes, it’s good. It opens up the area for better management,” Hardtke said last week.
Eva Galabru, former country director for Global Witness, said Tuesday that in 2002 she found hundreds of logs bearing Samling stamps that had been rafted to the Vietnam border via the Mekong River. How they got there is unclear, but, she said, “There is still an export ban on logs.”
Colin Poole of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which has had rangers patrolling Samling’s northwestern concession for forest crimes, said Samling hasn’t cut trees since the government hiked its royalty rates in 1999.
“They’ve been very good partners to us for a couple of years now,” Poole said Tuesday.
Poole said environmental advocates are anxious to learn what would happen to the concession if Samling leaves.
High-ranking officials at the ministries of Agriculture and Environment, which would be responsible for the fate of the concession areas, said this week they have heard nothing about Samling pulling out.
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)