CHRTF with support from Lush Hong Kong hang ghost flag and sign of NO Chainsaw in order to scare loggers inside Protected Area of Prey Lang
Activists tell US to step up forest protection efforts
Conservationist Marcus Hardtke yesterday blasted USAID and Winrock for “four years of mismanagement” as the Forest Monitoring Working Group put out a call for “urgent action” from the American bodies.
“They’re not addressing the core problem,” Hardtke said, adding that the two groups were ignoring the corruption that drives illegal logging.
Yesterday’s statement warned that rampant illegal logging in community forests and protected areas of Prey Lang – where Winrock has USAID-funded programs – meant resin trees would be “completely wiped out” by 2017.
The statement appealed for “strong political commitment” to combat complicity by authorities and government officials.
Curtis Handley, of Winrock, said his organisation had done plenty, and “provided equipment and trained patrols to help protect forests”.
But, Hardtke said, “All their workshops and their surveys and their feel-good stuff are not saving a single tree.”
US Embassy spokesman David Josar said that USAID “is committed to protecting and preserving Cambodia’s forests”.
US Urged to Save Trees
A group of environmental NGOs working to protect the Prey Lang forest called on the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to intervene and protect the region’s resin trees, or they will all be logged within six months, they claimed in a joint-statement issued yesterday.
The statement urged USAID, which works in the region on a program called Supporting Forests and Biodiversity, to make efforts to add resin trees to its mandate.
“Our working group to monitor the forests in Cambodia has predicted that within six months all of the resin trees will be lost in the Prey Lang and Preah Vihear areas,” it said.
“Resin trees are being cut in the protected forest areas and community forests to supply wood for the factories around those areas. Dealers have announced in public they will buy the trees without fear of prosecution.”
The statement claims that a logging company named 95 PNT Thy Nga has sent out teams to log resin trees and is demanding villagers sell their trees for as little as 10,000 riel (about $2.50).
“Daily resin collection by local people has almost completely ended now that up to 80 percent of resin trees in some community forests have been lost, as well as from a depth of 40 kilometers into the Prey Lang protected area.”
It says that at least five timber processing factories are operating in economic and social land concessions in Kampong Thom province in communities supported by USAID and Winrock International, despite a recent ban on logging by the government. The statement urges USAID to intervene and ensure authorities actually enforce the logging ban, rather than openly support logging.
“[The logging] is due to the joint conspiracy of local authorities and the Forestry Administration to facilitate the illegal timber business. Wood smuggling is even protected by the armed forces.”
On May 9, the government issued a sub-decree declaring the Prey Lang forest a wildlife sanctuary covering some 430,000 hectares in four provinces, and tasked the Environment Ministry with its management.
On Tuesday, the National Committee for Forest Crime Prevention acknowledged that although there were efforts from authorities to prevent logging in the country, illegal logging and wood smuggling were still taking place.
Ouch Leng, president of the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force – one of the NGOs that signed the statement – said that so far USAID had failed to protect villagers out of fear of dealing with the timber companies.
“Eventually all the wood, and with it the money, will be lost. Local people’s livelihoods are already getting worse from day to day.
“Soon there will be no traditional jobs besides slavery to the logging companies. When the resin trees have been completely destroyed, there will be no reason left to protect what is left of the forests, and people will move in to turn it all into farmland,” he warned.
Mr. Leng said that Environment Minister Say Samal had recently asked for $50 million from the US government to preserve Prey Lang, but given the number of timber factories still operating in the area it does not appear that authorities really care.
Representatives from USAID did not respond to emailed questions in time for publication.
Top Kakada, the director of the Kampong Thom provincial environment department, said yesterday that forest crimes in the province had greatly decreased in recent months and were certainly not a cause for alarm.
He refuted the claims of wide-scale logging and land grabbing in Prey Lang, but admitted it could well be happening outside the protected forest.
“Prey Lang in the past, we see that it’s alone and has been exploited, but after that we made it a wildlife sanctuary, it became a protected conservation area…and we will work to prevent it from destruction,” he said, stressing that all of his work was done according to instructions from ministry directors and the provincial governor.
A motorbike modified to carry illegal timber. KT/Mai Vireak
មន្ត្រីសង្គមស៊ីវិលធ្វើការងាររឿងបរិស្ថាននៅតំបន់ព្រៃឡង់ មើលឃើញថា បទល្មើសព្រៃឈើតំបន់ព្រៃការពារមួយនេះនៅតែបន្តកើតមានឡើងគួរឱ្យ បារម្ភ។ ការលើកឡើងនេះ ក្រោយពេលពួកគេចុះពិនិត្យស្ថានភាពព្រៃឡង់ កាលពីពេលថ្មីៗនេះ ហើយប្រទះឃើញបទល្មើសជាច្រើន មានទាំងការកាប់ទន្ទ្រានព្រៃយកដីដាំដំណាំ នៅខេត្តកំពង់ធំ និងការកាប់ឈើតំបន់ព្រៃការពារដឹកចូលក្រុមហ៊ុនដីសម្បទានជាដើម។
អ្នកសម្របសម្រួលលេខាធិការដ្ឋានបណ្ដាញព្រៃឡង់ លើកឡើងថា ប្រសាសន៍ និងបទបញ្ជារបស់នាយករដ្ឋមន្ត្រី ហ៊ុន សែន តម្រូវឱ្យមន្ត្រីពាក់ព័ន្ធចូលរួមការពារបទល្មើសព្រៃឈើឱ្យបាននោះ គឺធ្វើគ្រាន់តែល្អមើលប៉ុណ្ណោះ។ ពួកគេថា ស្ថានភាពព្រៃការពារមួយនេះអាចឈានដល់ការប្រកាសអាសន្នថែមទៀតផងនៅ ពេលបច្ចុប្បន្ន ពីព្រោះសកម្មភាពកាប់បំផ្លាញព្រៃឈើនៅតែកើតមានឡើងឥតឈប់ឈរ។
អ្នកសម្របសម្រួលលេខាធិការដ្ឋានបណ្ដាញព្រៃឡង់ ទាំងបួនខេត្ត លោក សេង សុខហេង មានប្រសាសន៍ថា តំបន់ព្រៃឡង់ នៅខេត្តកំពង់ធំ ក្នុងឃុំដងកាំបិត និងឃុំមានរិទ្ធ មានករណីកាប់រានដីព្រៃរាប់រយហិកតារយកធ្វើចម្ការ។ ក្រៅពីនេះ ក្នុងទឹកដីខេត្តព្រះវិហារ ជាប់ព្រំប្រទល់ស្រុកសណ្ដាន់ ខេត្តកំពង់ធំ រោងចក្រកែច្នៃឈើឈ្មោះ ៩៥ ដោយជ្រកក្រោមស្លាកក្រុមហ៊ុនដីសម្បទានសេដ្ឋកិច្ចវៀតណាម មួយឈ្មោះធីង៉ា (Thy Nga) បានកាប់ឈើពីតំបន់ព្រៃឡង់ ហើយដឹកចូលក្នុងក្រុមហ៊ុន រួចទើបបន្តដឹកចេញតាមរថយន្តយីឌុបធំៗ រថយន្តតូច និងម៉ាស៊ីនគោយន្តច្នៃជាដើម។
លោកថា ក្នុងពេលលោកចុះឃ្លាំមើលរយៈពេល ៥ថ្ងៃ ចាប់ពីថ្ងៃទី៨ ខែកញ្ញា ដល់ថ្ងៃទី១៣ ខែកញ្ញា សកម្មភាពដឹកឈើចេញពីក្រុមហ៊ុន គឺមិនក្រោម ១ពាន់ម៉ែត្រគូបទេ៖ «ខ្ញុំជឿជាក់ថា គ្មានប្រសិទ្ធភាពទេ ពីព្រោះបើមានប្រសិទ្ធភាពគឺមានតាំងពីយូរមកហើយ។ គ្រាន់តែជាការនិយាយមួយដើម្បីឱ្យគ្រាន់តែល្អស្ដាប់ប៉ុណ្ណោះ»។
លោកបន្តថា ពលរដ្ឋរស់នៅតំបន់នោះមួយចំនួន និងពលរដ្ឋមកពីខេត្តឆ្ងាយៗ ត្រូវបានគេជួលចូលទៅកាប់ឈើក្នុងមួយម៉ែត្រគូបពី ១០ម៉ឺនរៀល ទៅ ២០ម៉ឺនរៀល។ បន្ថែមពីនេះ ក្រុមហ៊ុនបានដើរប្រមូលទិញដើមច្បោះជ័រ ឬដើមឈើទាលប្រជាពលរដ្ឋ ហើយបើពលរដ្ឋមិនព្រមលក់ ពួកគេកាប់យកតែម្ដង។ លោកអះអាងថា ក្រុមហ៊ុនធីង៉ា គឺគ្មានឈើសម្រាប់កាប់ទៀតឡើយ ហើយឈើដែលដឹកចេញពីក្រុមហ៊ុនរាល់ថ្ងៃ គឺជាឈើកាប់ពីតំបន់ព្រៃជម្រកសត្វប៉ុណ្ណោះ។
កាលពីថ្ងៃទី៩ ខែឧសភា រាជរដ្ឋាភិបាលបានចេញអនុក្រឹត្យមួយស្ដីពីការបង្កើតដែនជម្រក សត្វព្រៃតំបន់ព្រៃឡង់ ដែលមានទំហំជាង ៤សែនហិកតារ (៤៣១.៦៨៣) ស្ថិតនៅភូមិសាស្ត្រខេត្តចំនួន៤ រួមមានខេត្តកំពង់ធំ ក្រចេះ ស្ទឹងត្រែង និងខេត្តព្រះវិហារ។ រាជរដ្ឋាភិបាលក៏បានប្រគល់សិទ្ធិគ្រប់គ្រង និងការពារព្រៃអភិរក្សមួយនេះទៅឱ្យក្រសួងបរិស្ថាន។
ទាក់ទងបញ្ហានេះ ប្រធានមន្ទីរបរិស្ថានខេត្តកំពង់ធំ លោក តុប កក្កដា មានប្រសាសន៍នៅថ្ងៃទី១៤ ខែកញ្ញា ថា បទល្មើសនៅតំបន់ព្រៃឡង់ ក្នុងខេត្តកំពង់ធំ គឺបានថយចុះច្រើន មិនមែនដល់កម្រិតប្រកាសអាសន្នដូចការលើកឡើងទេ ប៉ុន្តែចំពោះខេត្តគេផ្សេងលោកមិនបានដឹងឡើយ។ ចំណែកសកម្មភាពរានដីព្រៃថ្មីៗ ជាលក្ខណៈទ្រង់ទ្រាយធំនៅតំបន់ព្រៃឡង់ ក្នុងតំបន់ដែលលោកគ្រប់គ្រង គឺមិនមានឡើយ ប៉ុន្តែអាចមានខ្លះនៅក្រៅតំបន់ព្រៃការពារ។
យ៉ាងណាក៏ដោយ លោកនឹងស្រាវជ្រាវជុំវិញបញ្ហានេះ៖ «អ៊ីចឹងកិច្ចការនេះខ្ញុំធ្វើការទៅតាមការណែនាំរបស់ថ្នាក់ដឹកនាំ ក្រសួង ថ្នាក់ដឹកនាំរបស់អភិបាលខេត្ត។ អ៊ីចឹងព្រៃឡង់នេះ យើងឃើញថា កន្លងមកវាឯកាមែន ប៉ុន្តែក្រោយពេលយើងបានដាក់បញ្ចូលជាដែនជម្រកសត្វ ជាតំបន់សម្រាប់អភិរក្ស។ អ៊ីចឹងជាទិសដៅយើងនឹងធ្វើការអភិរក្ស នឹងធ្វើការទប់ស្កាត់ឱ្យខាងតែបាន»។
លោកបន្តថា ចាប់តាំងពីរាជរដ្ឋាភិបាលដាក់ព្រៃឡង់ ជាតំបន់ព្រៃការពារ ខាងមន្ទីរបរិស្ថានខេត្តធ្វើការងារនេះ យ៉ាងយកចិត្តទុកដាក់ដោយសហការជាមួយអាជ្ញាធរខេត្ត និងប្រជាសហគមន៍ថែមទៀត។ គិតចាប់ពីថ្ងៃទី១០ ខែឧសភា ដល់ថ្ងៃទី១០ ខែកញ្ញា មន្ត្រីបរិស្ថានខេត្តបង្ក្រាបបានបទល្មើសឈើដឹកចេញពីព្រៃឡង់ ជាង ១០៧ម៉ែត្រគូប រណារយន្ត ១០៥គ្រឿង ព្រមទាំងអាវុធកែច្នៃចំនួន ១០ដើម។
កាលពីថ្ងៃទី២២ ខែសីហា លោកនាយករដ្ឋមន្ត្រី ហ៊ុន សែន ប្រកាសឲ្យក្រសួងពាក់ព័ន្ធនឹងធនធានធម្មជាតិចំនួន៦ ពិភាក្សាជាមួយអង្គការសង្គមស៊ីវិលរៀងរាល់ ៣ខែម្ដង ដើម្បីរកវិធីសាស្ត្រការពារ និងអភិរក្សធនធានធម្មជាតិ។
ទោះបីយ៉ាងណាក៏ដោយ ប្រធានក្រុមកិច្ចការពិសេសសិទ្ធិមនុស្សកម្ពុជា លោក អ៊ូច ឡេង មើលឃើញថា សេចក្ដីប្រកាសរបស់រាជរដ្ឋាភិបាលក្នុងកិច្ចការពារធនធានធម្មជាតិ ពិសេសព្រៃឈើ គឺមិនមានប្រយោជន៍ឡើយ ពីព្រោះមាត់ថា ការពារ ប៉ុន្តែរោងចក្រកែច្នៃឈើបែរដាក់ឱ្យមាននៅតំបន់ព្រៃអភិរក្សទៅវិញ។
លោកថា បច្ចុប្បន្នឈ្មួញចាប់ផ្ដើមប្រមូលយកដើមច្បោះជ័រពលរដ្ឋនៅតំបន់ ព្រៃឡង់ ពីព្រោះឈើប្រណិតប្រភេទលេខ១ និងលេខ២ លែងមាន ហើយនឹងឈានទៅវិនាសដើមច្បោះជ័រក្នុងពេលឆាប់ៗ៖ «យើងបារម្ភថា ដើមជ័រច្បោះនឹងទទួលការវិនាសសាបសូន្យក្នុងរយៈពេល ៦ខែទៀត ប្រសិនបើរាជរដ្ឋាភិបាលលោកមិនបានចាត់វិធានការទប់ស្កាត់»។
លោក អ៊ូច ឡេង គ្រោងនឹងបញ្ជូនរបាយការណ៍មួយចំនួនទាក់ទងការកាប់បំផ្លាញព្រៃឈើនៅ តំបន់ព្រៃការពារ ដែលខាងលោកទើបរកឃើញថ្មីៗនេះ ដាក់ទៅក្រសួងពាក់ព័ន្ធ ព្រមទាំងរាយការណ៍ទៅម្ចាស់ជំនួយអន្តរជាតិធំៗ ដើម្បីដាក់សម្ពាធមករដ្ឋាភិបាលខ្មែរ ឱ្យយកចិត្តទុកដាក់បន្ថែមទៀតលើកិច្ចការពារធនធានធម្មជាតិនៅពេល បច្ចុប្បន្ន៕
Two of this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize[i] winners embody the severe risks facing environmental activists in Peru and Cambodia, which rank among the world’s most dangerous countries to defend the natural world according to Global Witness data.
This year’s winner from South America, Máxima Acuña de Chaupe, has been beaten by police and suffered years of intimidation for refusing to allow the construction of an open-pit gold mine on her land. Asia’s winner, Ouch Leng, is regularly followed and threatened by forest authorities and logging companies for his investigative work into the country’s multi-million dollar black market in illegal wood, which is gutting the country’s last forests.
The acute vulnerability of people who take a stand against destructive industries was recently demonstrated with the murder of one of the 2015 Goldman prize winners. Berta Cáceres had received years of death threats because of her opposition to a hydro-electric dam on her community’s land in Honduras. She was supposed to be under Honduran police protection, but was tragically shot dead in her home last month.
Global Witness is calling on governments to protect environmental defenders like Berta, Máxima and Leng, who are coming under increasing attack.
“The Goldman Environmental Prize is an important recognition of the heroic work of the thousands of people worldwide who take a stand against environmental destruction. Berta Cáceres’ murder was a shocking reminder of the increasing vulnerability of the activists in these modern-day David and Goliath stories,” said Billy Kyte, campaigner at Global Witness. “Two of this year’s winners, Máxima and Leng, have courageously faced up to powerful state and corporate forces in Peru and Cambodia – two of the world’s most dangerous countries for environmental activism.”
Global Witness’ 2015 report How Many More? shows that between 2002 and 2014 at least 57 defenders were murdered in Peru, making it the fifth most dangerous country for environmental activism. Cambodia ranked ninth with 14 deaths. New data suggests that last year 12 more were killed in Peru and 2 more in Cambodia.
Máxima Acuña de Chaupe is an indigenous Peruvian farmworker who has survived violent eviction attempts for her resistance to the construction of a $4.8 billion gold mine on her land.[ii] Five demonstrators were killed by police in protests against the World Bank-funded Conga mine in 2012.
At least 61 activists have been killed in Peru over the last ten years, with almost 80% of deaths related to mining. Peru recently weakened its environmental laws in order to boost mining investment.[iii] It also made it easier for the police and army to get away with killings by reducing their criminal responsibility if they cause injury or death on duty.[iv]
Despite years of threats and intimidation Ouch Leng has persisted in his investigations into how Cambodia’s ruling elite is profiting from Cambodia’s trade in illegal timber, which is robbing forest-dependent communities of their land and livelihoods. At least five deaths have been linked to logging in Cambodia since 2007, including the deaths of two forest rangers in 2015 by suspected illegal loggers.[v] Last month a young forest activist was hacked by a machete whilst investigating rampant illegal logging in Cambodia’s Prey Lang forest. [vi]
Worldwide at least 30 forest defenders were murdered between 2012 and 2014 alone. Over the same period 77 were killed for defending their land against mining.
“As pressure on land and natural resources intensifies, ordinary people are increasingly finding themselves in the firing line of powerful vested interests. At best governments are turning a blind eye to killings, at worst they are complicit in their deaths,” said Kyte. “Urgent action is needed to protect those under threat, investigate crimes, and bring perpetrators to justice. But governments must also tackle the root causes of violence, which dictate that “development” comes at the expense of the natural world and the people who seek to defend it.”
For interviews and other information please contact:
Billy Kyte, Senior Campaigner (London) +44(0)7891 3603590 firstname.lastname@example.org
Alice Harrison, Communications (London) +44(0) 7841 338792 email@example.com
- Posted 08 Aug 2016 22:40
- Updated 10 Aug 2016 19:25
Stumps of felled trees can be seen in this part of a protected forest in Mondulkiri. Despite a nationwide crackdown on forest crimes, illegal logging is believed to continue in Cambodia. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)
Thousands of tonnes of natural forest wood still crossed the border into Vietnam, even after a Cambodian ban early this year. Indochina correspondent Pichayada Promchertchoo follows the timber trail with a ‘wanted man’.
SEN MONOROM, Cambodia: The road was pitch black but far from empty. Every minute or so, a muddy motorcycle would emerge from the dark and disappear within seconds, laden down with logs tied to the back seat.
“They come through all the time,” Ouch Leng told me as we watched them fly past the Pech Chreada Forestry Administration office. Dark mud stains hinted at an arduous journey through the nearby forest, a protected area of nearly 430,000 hectares in eastern Mondulkiri, wet with monsoon rain.
“They only pay the authorities when they come back from the Vietnam border with money,” the 42-year-old added.
Hours before, I had met Leng in Phnom Penh for the first time. He said he was being watched, but still offered to take me into the forest, where rare trees are believed to be illegally felled as part of a black-market international trade.
Our short discussion had quickly turned into a seven-hour drive to Sen Monorom, the capital of Mondulkiri. The border province is home to one of the largest protected forests in the country, and forms part of the timber trail that leads to Vietnam.
I was driving with one of Cambodia’s “most wanted men”.
Death threats are part of life for environmental activist Ouch Leng, 42, who investigates illegal logging.
But Leng is not a criminal. He is an environmental activist, human rights lawyer and the winner of this year’s prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for Asia. He has spent more than 20 years fighting to save Cambodia’s forests, and travels the country, often undercover, to investigate logging.
Death threats have become part of his life; so has living in a safe house. The forest defender says that danger lurks everywhere, and he is constantly on the run.
“They haven’t pressed any legal charge against me yet because what they want is my life,” he said with a smile. “I’ve never been afraid. I’m just trying to work.”
“They” are people with influence, who want Leng to shut up. “They” are among the powerful few who defy the law and profit from one of the most lucrative markets in the country: The timber trade.
Watch: Ouch Leng takes us down Cambodia’s timber trail
CRACKDOWN ON ILLEGAL TIMBER TRADE
The multi-billion dollar business has been thriving, fuelled by illegal logging and corruption as well as legitimate efforts.
Last year, Cambodia became Vietnam’s largest source of timber imports. At least 435,600 cubic metres of natural forest logs and sawn wood, worth more than US$380 million, left its borders for Vietnam, according to the General Department of Vietnam Customs’ statistics obtained by US environmental group Forest Trends.
“The rate of growth has been astonishing,” the group said in its most recent report, which showed the volume of imported logs skyrocket – from 383 cubic metres in 2014 to 57,700 cubic metres in 2015. That’s a near 15,000 per cent increase.
The volume of sawn timber imports from Cambodia also expanded in the same period, the report showed, from 153,500 cubic metres to 377,900 cubic metres.
Of those sawn timber imports, 82 per cent was classified as either high-value species or luxury species, and was mainly for re-export to China, Hong Kong and India or as semi-finished products for global markets.
A key driver of this surge in timber exports from Cambodia to Vietnam was the deregulation of import licensing by Hanoi. Import procedures were simplified and timber imports were allowed at all border gates between the two countries.
The increase also coincided with a lack of timber supply from Laos and Myanmar, which banned log exports in response to overharvesting.
Adding to the booming business were alleged links between all sorts of people – from loggers to smugglers, community leaders, police officers, soldiers, government officials and business tycoons – accused of depleting Cambodia’s forests at breakneck speed as they chased easy money.
A task force was set up to stop forest crime and a string of raids took place, in an apparent crackdown early this year.
The situation had become so alarming that in January, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen intervened. He imposed a ban on all timber exports to Vietnam.
He ordered the closure of Cambodia-Vietnam border crossings for timber trade and set up a special task force to stop forest crime – a 10-member committee comprising district police, military police and forestry officials led by the National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha.
The order triggered probes into high-profile businessmen. A string of raids took place at warehouses and economic land concessions suspected of illegal activities.
Arrests were made. Tens of thousands of cubic metres of wood were confiscated. For a few months, Cambodia witnessed what seemed like a serious crackdown on the timber trade.
‘TURF WAR BETWEEN LOGGING CARTELS’
But for some observers, the nationwide campaign was nothing more than a turf war between Cambodia’s biggest logging cartels and, after an initial sharp slowdown, business is starting to pick up again.
Most of the apparently confiscated timber has found its way across the Vietnam border, according to Forest Trends.
“According to our sources, the crackdown was triggered by a business dispute between competing logging cartels, rather than an earnest attempt to stamp out the illegal exploitation of Cambodia’s forests,” said Kerstin Canby, Forest Policy, Trade and Finance Program Director at Forest Trends.
“There is little sign of legal follow-up by the authorities. Field research suggests that most of the purportedly confiscated timber has found its way across the Vietnam border already.”
Data from Vietnamese customs obtained by the group shows the timber exports have continued despite the ban. In January, 34,000 cubic metres of wood still found its way into Vietnam. The number plummeted to 5,000 cubic metres in February before growing to 10,000 cubic metres in March.
The reports are politically motivated, and no more wood is flowing out, says Environment Minister Say Samal.
But according to Cambodian Environment Minister Say Samal, these figures are “groundless” and “falsified”.
“I doubt it’s true. How can you move 10,000 cubic metres of wood across the border without anyone noticing?” he told Channel NewsAsia.
“I’m not denying there are cases where people are still conducting illegal activities with regard to the forest. But I’d like to point this out: It is a problem. But is it at the scale that was reported? No, I don’t think so.”
The Environment Ministry has been studying various reports about forest crimes and cross checking with people on the ground to understand the real situation, Mr Samal said.
“But the majority of our findings show the reports are just politically motivated. No more wood is flowing out.”
DISRUPTED BUT NOT STOPPED
While the trade may not have been eliminated, the crackdown has disrupted the organised, large-scale smuggling by the well-connected operators who were crossing the borders before.
In Mondulkiri, the impact has been noticeable, according to residents. The streets are seeing fewer timber trucks, and traffic along its border crossings is much lighter.
“Only soldiers and police officers come here now,” said a shop owner near the La Pakhe bilateral border gate, once teeming with people and cars. It is almost deserted.
But the illegal timber trade seems to be adapting.
“We don’t see so many timber trucks nowadays. But there are still a lot of timber motorcycles and cars. They transport wood from the protected forest to buyers elsewhere,” a local resident told me.
“They are mostly small-scale operators avoiding official channels altogether,” Ms Canby added.
From the dark, an old minivan whizzed past. Strips of sawn wood could be seen protruding from the boot.
The vehicle was stopped at one of the checkpoints between Mondulkiri and Vietnam, but its driver seemed to know the drill. Casually, he approached a local officer and in one swift moment, placed some money on his table.
Without much delay, the minivan zoomed off with timber still sticking out like a big, long tail.
“You see that? No arrest! They just let him go,” Leng said bitterly.
“Forest Administration officials, rangers and soldiers just wait to take money from loggers. They even make it easy for them to cross the border.”
The journey to the protected forest of Mondulkiri was rough and muddy. We set out early on motorcycles and bumped along a winding dirt road for three hours. The sight was alarming.
There was hardly any trace of protected forest left.
Trees had been chopped down and uprooted. Unwanted trunks and huge stumps lay sprawled across the forest. Almost everywhere, plantations spread far out of sight.
Thousands of hectares of what was once a pristine forest are cleared for Economic Land Concessions (ELCs) – a long-term lease that allows investors to use private state land for large-scale agriculture.
Those awarded Economic Land Concessions are allowed to clear the land for agriculture.
“Most ELCs are in forested areas with big trees,” said Sok Ratha, Provincial Coordinator of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) in Mondulkiri.
“The government granted land to private companies to grow rubber, pepper and other crops. Now, the forest is almost completely destroyed. Areas outside ELCs are also threatened.”
The Cambodian Government introduced Economic Land Concessions to stimulate the economy and create jobs for local people. It has granted more than 270 concessions, which, according to the environment minister, span an area of 1.2 million hectares nationwide.
The land is meant for industrial agriculture, which involves cultivating crops, raising animals and constructing facilities to process agricultural products.
Successful applicants are awarded the right to clear the land for agriculture. They are therefore allowed to cut all the trees in the premises, install sawmills to process the legally cut wood and export the products.
But that is not always the case. The scheme soon found itself at the heart of Cambodia’s timber trade, with many ELCs apparently used to cover up illegal logging operations.
Many ELCs are possibly being used to cover up illegal logging operations.
“Once they’ve depleted their land, they’ll cut more trees outside the ELC.
“The wood is then brought to their sawmills, where illegal logs are turned into legal timber. The timber is then transported to other countries through the Vietnam border and the international port at Sihanoukville,” Leng explained.
“This is the strategy of Cambodia’s timber business,” he said.
Nonetheless, Mr Samal is clear: “Let me put it this way: Large-scale illegal logging has been stopped. Period. It’s done.”
NO BRIBES, NO BUSINESS
Despite Mr Samal’s certainty, evidence suggests there is some way to go before the illegal timber trade is eradicated in Cambodia, with a well-established, sophisticated system still in place that needs to be dismantled.
In Tbong Khmum, busy roads were full of big trucks. Most of them carried something heavy under huge tarpaulins covering the storage compartment. Tears in the plastic revealed stacks of timber inside.
“Sometimes, what you see is just a hollow frame, with luxury-grade wood hidden in the middle. Nobody checks,” Leng told me as we tailed a small train of timber trucks.
A road sign indicated they were headed towards Trapang Plong International Border Checkpoint. It is one of the main gateways on the timber trail between Cambodia and Vietnam. The area is also home to timber depots, casinos, hotels and inland ports owned by wealthy businessmen.
One of the trucks pulled over at an export customs clearance office. Its driver carried a document in his hands and disappeared through a small entrance.
“He needs an export permit to cross the border,” Leng said.
It did not take long. The driver reemerged, climbed back on his truck and drove off. We followed on a dusty road.
His truck soon joined others that had gone ahead. They were scattered near the border crossing. Some were parked in front of a depot, others a few hundred metres from the international border gate, purportedly ready to enter Vietnam.
Trucks carrying timber usually cross the border late at night, according to Ouch Leng.
“They have to wait for other trucks from the same company because the export permit can only be used once.
“It also indicates the total volume of goods that will cross the border. One truck can carry about 20-30 cubic metres of wood. They usually cross the border late at night,” Leng explained.
“I support the government’s ban. But it’s just a promise that only lasts a short time.”
The sun had already disappeared. There was not much light on the road leading into Vietnam, save for the headlights of transport trucks crossing the border. Their storage compartment was left open. No timber.
But a short walk away, several trucks stood in the dark. Something was covered under big tarpaulins. Leng was sitting by the road with his camera.
“The timber business still operates,” he said.
This is the first in a series of reports on forestry issues in Cambodia. Follow Pichayada Promchertchoo on Twitter @PichayadaCNA
Read Part 2: Cambodian villagers fear for future amid forest burning dispute