Suspected timber smugglers have gotten off the hook in the vast majority of busts that have followed Prime Minister Hun Sen’s January call for a crackdown on the illegal timber trade, a Post analysis has revealed.
In the wake of the prime minister’s creation of a task force aimed at curbing illicit timber exports to Vietnam, the past 10 months have seen a surge in raids of vehicles, warehouses and other stockpiles.
But an examination of the nearly 100 incidents that have appeared in the pages of the Post since January 15 shows that just 25 percent have ended with timber smugglers being arrested or fined, while suspects have escaped entirely in 32 percent of cases.
The proportion of escapees climbs even higher, to 54 percent, when considering only busts in which military or local officials were implicated.
For example, between May and July, authorities stopped a total of six Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) vehicles, resulting in the seizure of at least 750 kilograms of rosewood and other luxury timber. But none of those busts resulted in arrests, fines or other penalties.
In every case, authorities told reporters that the drivers of the vehicles escaped.
Mapping the year’s timber busts reveals a concentration in the country’s eastern provinces, including Mondulkiri, Kratie, and Tbong Khmum, all of which share a border with Vietnam.
Despite official claims that the crackdown has effectively halted illegal timber exports to Cambodia’s rosewood-hungry eastern neighbour, the continued frequency of busts paints a different picture – that of an ongoing lively trade with Vietnam.
According to longtime Cambodia conservationist Marcus Hardtke, lax policing of illegal timber can be chalked up to authorities’ pervasive conflicts of interest. Because enforcement agencies are “actively and passively participating” in forest crime, he said via email, officials risk exposure by arresting and prosecuting suspects, incentivising an approach that “usually centers around the product, not the person”.
An example of this avoidance can be seen in a March 1 timber seizure in Ratanakkiri province, when authorities intercepted a Vietnam-bound SUV loaded with rosewood.
While 40 logs of the luxury wood were seized, the driver – in a familiar pattern – escaped. A provincial officer told the Post that he believed the timber belonged to the son of a powerful Ratanakkiri official whom many police were afraid to pursue.
Ministry of Environment spokesman Sao Sopheap said Cambodia’s timber problem was largely under control, praising recent reforms within the ministry as having “substantially reduced” illegal logging. He said authorities are now focusing their efforts on stamping out “small-scale incidents”.
He declined to comment on specific cases involving RCAF vehicles. Officials at the Forestry Administration could not be reached for comment.
Hardtke acknowledged that the Environment Ministry’s reforms were a move in the right direction, but stressed that the “final results are not yet in”, and that only decisive action against the linchpins of the trade could effectively halt illegal logging.
“How can you expect the small people to follow the law if the big fish act with impunity and push them into illegal trade?” he said.