Cambodia ‘probes’ illegal timber trade

Cambodia says it is investigating claims of large-scale timber smuggling to Vietnam. 

Phnom Penh’s environment minister, Say Sam Al, told the Cambodia Daily that investigations had been taking place for “about a year”.

Earlier this month a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) claimed that Vietnamese companies were violating a Cambodian ban on timber exports with military and government help.

It said between December and February, at least 300,000 cubic metres of timber was stolen or smuggled out of Cambodia into Vietnam, enough to fill more than 100 Olympic swimming pools by volume.

The timber is registered using Vietnam’s quota system, giving it lawful status and making it taxable. The trade has an estimated value of US$75 million.

“The blatant illegal logging witnessed by EIA in Cambodia’s Ratanakiri Province represents a criminal conspiracy between elements of the Vietnamese government, well-connected timber companies and corrupt Cambodian officials,” the EIA report stated.

But Sam Al said “some of the claims are new”, but others were “already part of our investigation”.

EIA says villagers alleged that provincial governor Thong Savorn celebrated a deal with the Vietnamese companies last year with a public feast. Savorn denies the allegations.

Marcus Hardtke, a veteran investigator of Cambodia’s timber trade, said if the Environment Ministry was really investigating reports for the past year then it was probably being blocked by senior government figures.

“We have to assume that someone in Phnom Penh approved this illegal deal,” Hardtke said. “That would explain why they were able to operate over the whole dry season, and why investigations and legal proceedings are stalled.”

Hanoi’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the Straits Times it “strictly observes” international commitments.

“Vietnam law strictly prohibits smuggling, including illegal logging. All acts of smuggling, including illegal logging shall be seriously dealt with in line with the rule of law in Vietnam,” it announced. “Vietnam and Cambodia regularly maintain close cooperation in stopping smuggling, including illegal logging.”

Asean’s wood processing and hardwood furniture industry continues to thrive, fuelling illegal felling in countries where policing is weak.

Vietnam is one of the world’s largest wood processors, exporting US$7.3 billion worth of wooden products in 2016.

Litter in a Cambodian river. Picture credit: Wikimedia