Try Pheap Import Export earlier this year obtained the exclusive right to collect nearly 5,000 cubic meters of confiscated luxury timber, from provinces across the country, after paying the government some $3.4 million for the privilege, the Forestry Administration said Monday.
Thun Sarath, deputy director of the department of administration, planning and finance at the Forestry Administration, said that Try Pheap Import Export paid 13,704,001,185 riel, or about $3.4 million, to the Ministry of Finance in June after signing a deal to purchase the already confiscated wood. The deal was signed with the Council of Ministers and the Ministry of Agriculture in March.
The deal gives Try Pheap permission to collect up to 4,871 cubic meters of luxury wood seized from illegal loggers by forestry officials in Phnom Penh and all 24 provinces, Mr. Sarath said, adding that Try Pheap is allowed to sell the timber to any local or international buyers the company desires.
“The government gave priority to Oknha Try Pheap to collect the wood in exchange for paying the state earlier this year,” he said.
Human rights workers have expressed concern that the practice of granting firms monopolies on purchasing wood in areas where logging occurs effectively legalizes illegal logging, and accelerates Cambodia’s already-critical rate of deforestation.
Mr. Sarath added that the deal was reached with Try Pheap, owner of his eponymous firm, when he offered double the amount pledged by a consortium of seven local companies who had bid, and won, the contract to purchase the country’s confiscated luxury wood stocks about three years ago.
“They [the seven companies] only deposited a fraction of the money [promised], in violation of the contract, so the government gave this right to Try Pheap,” Mr. Sarath said, declining to name the firms, or give any details about the bidding process.
Pheang Chetra, public relations officer for Try Pheap, confirmed that the company had signed an agreement to acquire confiscated luxury wood throughout the country, but said the firm has so far only received licenses to transport the timber in Phnom Penh and 11 provinces: Kratie, Kompong Cham, Mondolkiri, Preah Vihear, Stung Treng, Ratanakkiri, Kompong Speu, Kandal, Prey Veng and Svay Rieng.
“We received a letter that allows us to move the wood freely…. We just show this to the provincial Forestry Administration officials, and then we can transport it,” Mr. Chetra said, adding that the company exports most of the wood to China, selling the remainder in Phnom Penh.
In February, the Ministry of Agriculture gave Try Pheap permission to purchase all wood felled inside economic land concessions (ELCs) in Ratanakkiri “to meet local demand and for export” and “generate royalties and dividends for the state’s budget,” an unprecedented move that rights workers claimed at the time would accelerate deforestation in the province.
Chan Soveth, deputy head of Adhoc’s land and natural resources rights section, claimed Monday that such a monopoly exacerbated the demise of the country’s forests as it is impossible to monitor where all trees are cut.
“[The government] is providing a way for the people to cut the trees—directly,” Mr. Soveth said.
Adhoc hosted a conference Monday in Phnom Penh to discuss strategies for protecting Cambodia’s dwindling forests.
Chhim Savuth, a researcher for local NGO Community Peace Building Network, who spoke during the event, said that since July’s national election, the rate of deforestation in the country has increased dramatically.
“The illegal logging situation has completely changed,” Mr. Savuth said.
On a recent trip to investigate logging in Kompong Thom province, Mr. Savuth said at the conference, he witnessed some 100 residents of Sandan district’s Dang Kambit commune felling trees and selling the wood to people who claimed to work for Try Pheap. The entire process was under the supervision of members of the armed forces, Mr. Savuth said.
Pol Visal, deputy director of Try Pheap’s operations in Ratanakkiri, said last week that in his province the company collects an average of 30 cubic meters of luxury- and first-grade hardwood from private concession holders every day.
Mr. Visal defended the company against claims that it was contributing to deforestation in the province.
“We do not encourage deforestation, because the government is dealing with this problem, and even though there is [illegal] logging going on, it isn’t much,” he said.
Chhay Thy, investigator for local rights group Adhoc in Ratanakkiri, said unchecked logging is underway throughout the province since the monopoly on wood purchases was established.
“We’ve seen logging everywhere since [Try Pheap] showed up…and no one has the authority to stop him,” Mr. Thy said.
Mr. Thy claimed that logging is now taking place well beyond the boundaries of government-issued ELCs. Once forestry officials stamp wood as belonging to Try Pheap, it can be transported legally, he said.
On Wednesday, the Cambodia Human Rights Task Force, a local group, alleged in a report that Try Pheap and his wife hold land concessions, special economic zones and other development permits in at least six provinces, amounting to more than 100,000 hectares of land.
Try Pheap has denied the allegations, saying the amount of land he holds in concessions comes to only 21,000 hectares in three provinces.
On Friday, the Kandal Provincial Court issued a summons to question Sen San, a commune counselor who is cited in the Task Force report accusing the Try Pheap firm of stockpiling wood inside the grounds of a pagoda in the province. Try Pheap accuses Mr. San of defamation, according to court documents. A second woman cited in the report has also been summonsed, according to Ouch Leng, director of the Task Force.
A study published in the journal Science on November 15 found that Cambodia experienced the fifth-fastest rate of deforestation globally between 2000 and 2012, losing more than 7 percent of its forest cover during that period.
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