Graft props up illegal timber trade: activist

Source: Khmer Times

Most of the timber that left Vietnam from January to June was sawn wood and raw logs. Supplied

Environmental activist Ouch Leng yesterday alleged that the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments have created a system of corruption that supports the illegal timber trade, while also touting an end to illegal logging and timber exports.

President of the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force Mr Leng also alleged that  commitment to forest protection is a lie from both Cambodia and Vietnam because they are making millions of dollars from smuggling and selling illegal timber.

“Investigation of illegal logging and timber smuggling across the border is reported by the media, but nothing changes because timber businesses are supported by state actors,” he claimed.

He added that the latest customs data from Hanoi released by NGO Forest Trends shows that  most of the $142 million worth of timber that left Cambodia for Vietnam from January to June was sawn wood and raw logs.

“Cambodia’s and Vietnam’s government have created a system to support illegal timber businesses smuggling wood across the border,” Mr Leng said.

The data also shows the timber that left Cambodia for Vietnam this year added up to 313,000 cubic metres, 114 percent more than during the first half of last year. Vietnam imported some 35,000 cubic metres worth nearly $19 million in June alone.

“It’s no secret that it is a system created by state actors, everybody is trying to find the best way to make money with timber, rather than protecting it,” Mr Leng said.

Mr Leng further claimed  that the government’s announcement of raids on Oknha Khna, Oknha Thai and Oknha Kung Krueng was just propaganda.

“The committee is just a game for timber tycoons,” he said. “The very thing is under the control of timber tycoons.”

Long-time anti-logging activist Marcus Hardtke said Vietnam had been plundering Cambodia’s forest for three decades.

After Laos started implementing forestry laws and drastically reduced timber exports, Cambodia has again become Vietnam’s biggest timber supplier, he said.

“So far, the Cambodian government is unable or unwilling to implement existing laws and protect its national heritage, the forests. The protected areas exist mostly on paper,” Mr Hardtke said.

According to Mr Hardtke, the timber flow to Vietnam remains massive and it is bleeding Cambodia’s forests dry, but it is also unofficially taxed by officials at many points in the trade chain.

That means the illegal trade could be stopped if there was commitment by the government, he said.

“The timber cartel in Cambodia is a well entrenched mafia. Its members include high-ranking officials and well connected individuals.

“So it is hard, even for minsters, to stand up to this business.

“But blind denial cannot be the answer, either. Courage and commitment is needed to save what’s left of Cambodia’s forests,” he added.

Minister of the Environment Say Samal said he knew about the report and his officials were investigating.

“Now my officials are checking on that news,” he said.

Speaking at a World Environment Day celebration in June last year, Mr Samal said his strategy of closing all timber transportation border gates to Vietnam would end the sale of illegally logged wood.

“For the forestry problem, I can tell you today that on Environment Day, mass logging which we have seen has completely ended,” he said. “Mass logging, I can say that it is finished.”

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