Timber magnate Try Pheap and businessman Lim Bunna were granted economic land concessions (ELCs) on property inside a wildlife sanctuary confiscated from two other companies for violating their government contracts, a provincial governor told a meeting of officials on Monday.
Such a move would fly in the face of a freeze on new ELC licenses that Prime Minister Hun Sen laid down in 2012, according to spokesman for the premier’s cabinet.
Speaking in Phnom Penh during the first meeting of a new task force to combat illegal logging in eastern Cambodia, Mondolkiri provincial governor Eng Bunheang said the two new licenses were granted under Environment Minister Say Sam Al, who took up the post in 2013.
“The Khmer Angkor Agriculture company had its ELC canceled, but the Ministry of Environment recently gave the ELC to Oknha Lim Bunna, who owns BXL,” Mr. Bunheang said, using an honorific reserved for those who have donated at least $100,000 to the state. “Dai Nam’s ELC was also canceled, but they gave it to Oknha Try Pheap.”
But Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, contacted after the meeting, said the granting of new ELCs—even over previous ELCs—was still off limits.
“They can no longer issue any license to any company at all,” he said.
“The Ministry of Environment explained [to] me…if a new company wants to take over, they say no. The policy [is], when they take it back they [are] not going to give a new one. If they take it back, they keep it as state property. That’s what they explained [to] me.”
Environment Ministry spokesman Sao Sopheap could not be reached for comment.
The concessions granted to Mr. Pheap and Mr. Bunna both lie inside the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary, which falls under the Environment Ministry’s jurisdiction.
Mr. Pheap owns ELCs across the country and has for years been surrounded by accusations of using them to launder timber as part of a nationwide illegal logging racket. Environment rights group Global Witness says it tracked illegal loggers moving their timber through Mr. Pheap’s properties in Ratanakkiri province during a monthslong undercover investigation in 2014.
Mr. Pheap’s representatives have denied the claims.
Mr. Bunna, along with fellow oknha and ELC owner Soeng Sam Ol, is at the center of a new government clampdown on illegal logging in the country’s east. Mr. Siphan has named them as the prime targets of the new task force, which Mr. Hun Sen unveiled last week.
Mr. Sam Ol has denied the allegations. Mr. Bunna could not be reached for comment.
On Sunday, Mr. Siphan said authorities raided warehouses packed with timber belonging to both men.
At Monday’s inaugural meeting of the new task force, National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha, who has been placed in charge of the body, said authorities were still inspecting the stockpiles to determine whether any of the timber had been illegally sourced.
He said 360 members of the police, military police and military’s elite Brigade 911 have been assigned to the task force, along with a pair of helicopters to help them reach the remote areas where illegal loggers often work. Besides Mr. Bunheang, the provincial governors of Kompong Cham, Kratie, Ratanakkiri, Stung Treng and Tbong Khmum also attended the meeting. Gen. Sokha said the task force’s plans include a sweep of those provinces for villagers with trucks.
“We are going to check the houses of all villagers who have trucks because we think the trucks do not belong to the villagers. The trucks may belong to the timber dealers and the villagers just drive them for the businessmen,” he said.
Gen. Sokha has himself been accused by Global Witness of being involved in the country’s illicit timber trade.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)