Timber Trade Continuing Despite Ban, Data Shows

Customs data from Vietnam confirms that thousands of cubic meters of wood worth millions of dollars is continuing to reach the country from Cambodia despite a blanket ban placed on such exports four months ago.

As part of a sweeping crackdown on illicit timber stocks in eastern Cambodia initiated in mid-January, national military police commander Sao Sokha ordered an immediate stop to the export of all wood to Vietnam, acknowledging that much of the lucrative trade was illegal.

Villagers and NGO workers along the porous border say the operation has dented exports significantly but failed to wipe it out.

Military police have been reticent to acknowledge any breaches. But Vietnamese customs data shared by Forest Trends, an environmental protection group based in the U.S., corroborate the local reports.

The data shows timber exports to Vietnam averaging 47,000 cubic meters during each of the last three months of 2015. Exports then tumbled from 34,000 cubic meters in January to just 5,000 in February, then rose to 10,000 in March, the last month for which figures are available. The exports were worth about $26 million in January, $3 million in February and $9 million in March.

“So there is a decrease of timber imports into Vietnam from Cambodia. This is likely the impact of [Prime Minister] Hun Sen’s ban. What we don’t know is…if this decrease is sustainable,” Xuan Phuc, a regional trade and finance analyst for Forest Trends, said in an email.

“The ban is [a] good thing for Cambodia because it helps at least partly keep the remaining forest in Cambodia and/or promote [the] domestic processing industry,” he said.

Forest Trends released a report on Friday detailing Cambodia’s timber exports to Vietnam over the past three years that shows a massive increase—from 52,000 cubic meters in 2013 to 436,000 cubic meters in 2015—and a growing use of minor border checkpoints over major international ones to get it over the border.

The report also reveals a growing trade in unprocessed logs, the export of which Cambodia banned 20 years ago, and in sawn Siamese rosewood, on which Mr. Hun Sen placed specific protections in 2013.

Mr. Phuc said traders may have shifted a growing share of the traffic to minor checkpoints because they might be less strict about what gets through.

Anecdotal reports from along the border suggest the preference for such checkpoints still exists.

Romash Svat, who lives about 4 km from the Vietnamese border in Ratanakkiri province, said on Monday that he sees pickup trucks loaded with timber driving past his house toward the local checkpoint on a daily basis, but always under cover of night.

“I have seen many Toyota pickup trucks transporting wood to Vietnam through the O’Kama border gate every night, in the early morning at about 4 a.m.,” he said. “At least six cars, but I have never seen the authorities stop them.”

Mr. Svat said he uses the checkpoint himself on occasion to visit relatives in Vietnam, and that it is regularly manned.

“I wonder how, if the illegal logging task force is posted at the border checkpoints, the timber still moves every day,” he said, adding that the timber traffic moving past his house had actually picked up since January. “I don’t know why, but maybe the dealers pay to cross the border.”

Soeng Sophari, a spokeswoman for the Commerce Ministry, which manages and tracks Cambodia’s foreign trade, conceded the many breaches, and placed the blame not on corruption but on “systematic weakness” due to a lack of resources.

“You have to acknowledge that poor countries have limited capacity,” she said. “I know a lot of people think we turn a blind eye, but it is not like that. I ask you to wait and see.”

(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap)

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