A stockpile of valuable timber burned to ashes on a Singaporean-owned rubber plantation in Mondolkiri province on Wednesday just hours after members of an anti-logging government task force finished taking inventory of it, prompting an investigation into the cause of the blaze.
The fire started in a forested area on Unigreen Resources’ 8,000-hectare concession at about 7 p.m. and made short work of a number of logs hewn from first-grade tree species, but did not spread to the surrounding vegetation, officials said Thursday.
It was at least the fourth fire in recent weeks to wipe out potential evidence against landholding firms under investigation by a task force established by Prime Minister Hun Sen in mid-January to combat illegal logging in the country’s east.
En route to Unigreen’s concession in Koh Nhek district Thursday morning, provincial police chief Toch Yon confirmed that he and other members of the task force were probing the cause of the fire, but would not comment further.
Speaking in the afternoon, district police chief Kan Penh said he had seen the remains of the wood, but that authorities had been unable to get close, the ground being too hot to walk on. The fire had incinerated the timber, he said, but left the surrounding trees untouched.
Mr. Penh refused to estimate the number of logs that were destroyed, but said each was between 3 and 5 meters long and 30 and 60 cm in diameter, and that all had been cut from three species of first-grade trees: Sokrom, Sralao and Koki.
He said the task force had been measuring and counting the logs for the past few weeks as part of its routine survey of Unigreen’s property, and wrapped up its work just hours before the timber went up in flames.
“The experts had been measuring the wood for several weeks, and found that most of it was not on the company’s inventory,” suggesting that it had been illegally logged, Mr. Penh said.
But despite the suspicious timing and highly localized nature of the fire, Mr. Penh said he did not believe someone had started it on purpose.
“I don’t know the reason for the fire, but I think it was probably an accidental forest fire, because fires always happen during the dry season,” he said.
Eng Hy, spokesman for the National Military Police, whose commander, Sao Sokha, is heading the task force, said authorities were still looking into possible causes of the blaze.
“We are not sure of the reason for the fire because we are still investigating, but I heard reports that the fire spread from the nearby forest,” he said, also refusing to say how much wood was destroyed.
Unigreen, which was granted the rubber concession in 2009, made headlines in early January when the National Police released a statement accusing the company, among others, of laundering illegally logged timber. One month later, the Try Pheap Group, named after the country’s most powerful and controversial timber trader, released a statement of its own denying unspecified accusations that it had ties to Unigreen. Two weeks after that, Unigreen sent a letter to General Sokha denying any involvement in the illegal logging trade.
Tuesday’s fire is at least the fourth to decimate timber stocks on private land concessions since the task force was launched, although the companies have avoided blame, with authorities ruling the blazes to be either accidental or the work of lone arsonists.
Am Sam Ath, technical coordinator for rights group Licadho, who has been monitoring the activities of the task force closely, said the spate of recent fires should raise eyebrows.
“It’s strange, because before the illegal logging task force was established, we never saw piles of wood burn down, but now we see wood burning on some companies’ [land],” he said. “We suspect that some companies are burning it to destroy evidence.
Unigreen could not be reached for comment.