Well-known timber magnate Try Pheap is preparing to expand cross-country with a scheme that already gives him exclusive rights to buy all the wood felled on economic land concessions (ELCs) in Ratanakkiri province, a spokesman for the businessman said.
The Agriculture Ministry’s Forestry Administration in February gave Try Pheap Import Export the exclusive rights to buy all the lumber harvested on ELCs across Ratanakkiri, where Mr. Pheap owns two ELCs of his own.
Government officials said the deal would help to curb the province’s rampant illegal logging trade.
But local residents and human rights groups say the past several months have proved just the opposite, and have called on the government to end the exclusive deal with Try Pheap.
Pheang Chetra, a public relations officer for Try Pheap Import Export, said this week that he did not know how much lumber the firm had bought from ELCs in Ratanakkiri since securing the exclusive purchase deal or how much it had paid for the wood.
But, Mr. Chetra said, the firm is in the midst of negotiations with land concession owners in several other provinces to arrange similar exclusive purchase deals.
“Now we are talking with the owners of those companies. If they agree to sell their wood, we will negotiate a price. Then the Ministry of Agriculture will agree with our proposal,” Mr. Chetra said.
He said his company was in negotiations with land concession owners in Stung Treng province, but declined to name any of the ELC owners or other provinces where talks were underway.
“If we tell the name of the provinces, it would affect the negotiations,” Mr. Chetra said.
Land concessions, mostly for rubber plantations and mining operations, currently cover at least 20 percent of the country and often overlap with national forests and wildlife sanctuaries.
In Ratanakkiri, villagers and rights groups have blamed Mr. Pheap’s government-approved timber deal for a dramatic rise in the felling of the province’s forests by loggers who claim to be working for Mr. Pheap’s company.
Mr. Chetra denied that his firm was involved in the illicit timber trade and blamed alleged ties on rogue loggers who “use my company [name] for their advantage.”
At the same time, Mr. Chetra conceded that his company had no reliable system to determine whether the timber it was buying from ELCs was legally or illegally logged.
“I have no idea how to say which one is legal and which one is illegal. But in Ratanakkiri the forest is almost cleared, so how can we say it is illegal wood?” Mr. Chetra said. “We just buy the wood inside the land concession; we don’t buy the wood outside the land concession.
“How can I know if the wood is cut outside the land concessions?” he added. “I just buy inside the land concessions. If they cut outside the land concession and they transport it into the land concession, how can we know?”
Officials at the Forestry Administration, however, officially in charge of most of the county’s forests, were reluctant to talk about their current deal—or any future deals—with Mr. Pheap.
Tim Sipha, the Forestry Administration’s director of legislation and law enforcement, said he knew nothing of illegal logging in Ratanakkiri.
“I didn’t get the report,” he said, referring all questions to the director of the Administration’s Ratanakkiri cantonment, Vorng Sokserey, who declined to comment.
Thun Sarath, deputy director of the Forestry Administration’s department of administration, planning and finance, declined to comment for this story and referred all questions about illegal logging in Ratanakkiri to local police and judicial officials.
Van Songvath, the province’s deputy police chief, conceded that illegal logging and transport of timber was on the rise of late and said local police, military and Forestry Administration officials had recently formed a joint committee to tackle the problem.
“We established a joint committee to take action against illegal logging and transport of wood by boats and trucks happening everywhere across the province,” he said.
Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc in Ratanakkiri, said the current rate of illegal logging in Ratanakkiri ought to convince the government to cancel the Try Pheap deal.
“All these companies [with ELCs] are not following their government contracts,” which forbid them from clearing healthy forest areas even if they lie inside their concessions’ borders, Mr. Thy said. So anyone buying those trees, including Try Pheap, is buying illegal wood even if logged inside legal concessions, he added.
In one recent case, Mr. Thy said he saw boatmen ferrying protected, luxury-grade rosewood across Ratanakkiri’s Srepok River that had come from a land concession inside the Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary. The boatmen told him they were working for Mr. Pheap and transporting the wood to Vietnam.
Just last week, villagers who came across illegal loggers in Preah Vihear province during a five-day patrol of Prey Long Forest said those loggers also claimed to be working for Mr. Pheap.
Ouch Leng, who heads the Cambodia Human Rights Task Force, said another deal Mr. Pheap inked with the government earlier this year, to buy some 5,000 cubic meters of illegally logged wood already confiscated by the Forestry Administration across the country, was also adding to the overall problem.
The Forestry Administration said Try Pheap Import Export offered $3.4 million in its successful bid for the 5,000 cubic meters of confiscated wood.
Mr. Chetra, the company’s public relations officer, said the firm was preparing to bid on another cache of confiscated wood later this month.
A study by researchers at the University of Maryland using U.S. satellite images, published in the journal Science last month, found that Cambodia had experienced the fifth-fastest rate of deforestation in the world over the past 12 years.