Without Arrests, Groups Fear Rise in Illegal Logging

More than half a year after the start of an illegal logging crackdown ordered by the prime minister, human rights groups fear the persistent lack of major arrests and reforms means the current re­ported lull in illegal logging will not last.

Thun Saray, president of local rights group Adhoc, said yesterday that though acts of illegal logging appear to be less frequent than be­fore the crackdown, more needs to be done.

“I still doubt this kind of crackdown can stop illegal logging forever,” said Mr Saray, whose provincial Adhoc staff keeps an eye on logging activity across the country.

Prime Minister Hun Sen directed his government in March to redouble its pursuit of the country’s illegal loggers regardless of their public status or political connections, an apparent nod to common complaints that the illicit trade is tied to some of the country’s more powerful players.

Forestry Administration chief Chheng Kim Sun said last week that the crackdown had led to the prosecution of more than 100 logging cases, though he had no details about their progress.

This week, the administration’s law enforcement director, Tim Sipha, could not confirm the figure. But he said the courts had prosecuted roughly 200 of the cases the administration has submitted since the beginning of 2010, far more than this time last year. In all those cases, however, he said only 21 people had been arrested. The director attributed that to a combination of ongoing investigations and cases that only result in fines.

Mr Sipha said he had no details about precisely whom authorities were arresting, either, but insisted that none of the suspects were government employees—a common target of illegal logging complaints from villagers and human rights groups.

“The government officials are not related to the illegal activity,” he said.

In Siem Reap province, where authorities seized hundreds of cubic meters of illegally sourced timber in the crackdown’s early days, prosecutor Ty Sovinthal said the court has even handed down some sentences for smuggling.

“Some of them were fined, and some were sentenced to serve in prison,” he said, declining to elaborate. Like Mr Sipha, however, he insisted that government officials were not—and could not possibly be—involved because they were “too busy working.”

Local and international rights groups alike have long insisted otherwise, however. In a 2007 report immediately banned by the government, London-based environmental watchdog Global Witness described an alleged illegal logging syndicate with ties reaching all the way to the top of the political ladder.

“We appreciate what the government is doing,” said Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, a local legal aid NGO that has spoken out before on the crackdown. But considering the scale of the problem, he added, “it is not enough.”

And given that even the arrests the government has made included no government employees, he added, “this is a problem, too.”

But the problem was not so much a matter of pitch, he suggested, as focus.

“They do not focus on the institution. They only crack down for a while,” said Mr Sam Oeun. “How to stop the [illegal] activity if we don’t have clear and strong institutions?”

Even when the prime minister removed then-forestry chief Ty Sokhun from his post in April for taking his duties too lightly, Global Witness described the change as little more than window dressing.

In a statement immediately following Mr Sokhun’s departure, and his subsequent return as an undersecretary of state at the same ministry, the NGO said real gains would only come when the government commissions a fully transparent and independent enquiry.

Such an enquiry has yet to come.

In the meantime, fining and arresting a handful of low-level transporters will net temporary gains at best, said Seng Bunra, country director of Conservation International.

“If we cannot arrest the people behind [it], the illegal activity will just go up and down,” he said.

In late March, provincial authorities in Siem Reap seized hundreds of cubic meters of illegally sourced timber from raids on the property’s of a CPP senator and a petroleum and hotels magnate, among others. The property owners who could be reached insisted their wood was fully licensed, however, and the government ended up auctioning the timber off minus any prosecutions.

Adhoc’s Mr Saray cited this as proof that authorities were missing the mark.

“During the crackdown, they found the wood on the property of many big personalities,” he said, “but they arrest only the medium fish, the small fish.”

In Ratanakkiri province, another reported hot spot of illegal logging activity in the country thanks to its remote forests and proximity to alleged buyers in Vietnam, provincial Adhoc coordinator Pen Bonnar said authorities did not seem to be catching any fish at all.

“We are very worried that illegal logging will resurface because there have been no detentions or prosecutions,” he said.

Judge Lou Sousambath, president of the provincial court, said the problem was that the loggers kept slipping through authorities’ fingers.

“It is hard to investigate because they escape,” he said.

Even so, the Forestry Administration insists its latest push is the new normal, and that illegal logging and trafficking will only decline from here.

But unless the government tackles the larger forces behind the trade, Mr Saray mused pessimistically, illegal logging in Cambodia, barring the occasional ups and downs, will remain as persistent as the forests themselves.

“If the forests remain, the illegal logging will continue,” he said.

In other words, Mr Saray said, “I think we cannot stop until the forests are gone.”

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