Timber Tycoon Back in Spotlight

May Titthara / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Sao Sokha, deputy chief of the Armed Forces and chairman of the National Anti-deforestation Committee, leads an inspection of a timber storage facility in Mondulkkiri. Supplied

Tycoon Try Pheap is denying any link to a Chinese-owned company under investigation for illegal logging in the northeast by the committee set up by Prime Minister Hun Sen in a mid-January to crack down on forest crimes.
 
The tycoon – who has faced frequent allegations that his Try Pheap Group has been involved in illegal logging – also called on the National Anti-deforestation Committee to take legal action against any company committing forest crimes under the name of his group.  
 
Mr. Pheap, who could not be reached for comment, made the statements in a letter released on Friday. 
 
In the letter, he rebuts allegations that Try Pheap Group is linked to Uni-Green Company, which is under investigation for illegal logging. Timber felled by Uni-Green Company was recently inspected by the Anti-Deforestation Committee on an economic  land concession (ELC) Uni-Green holds. “The claim that Uni-Green is a part of Tri Pheap Company is not true. We deny such a claim,” the letter read.
 
Eng Hy, spokesman for the National Gendarmerie and the Anti-Deforestation Committee, said that he did not know where speculation of a link between Try Pheap Group and Uni-Green came from. The committee had not released any report on this and was still inspecting stocks of timber, the spokesman said.
 
“We are still in the investigation phase, so we can’t accuse anyone yet,” he added.
 
Uni-Green, a Chinese-owned company registered under the name Chua Kwaseng, was in April 2009 granted an 8,000 hectare ELC in Modulkiri province’s Kor Nhek district. The conditions of the ELC allow it 70 years to develop a rubber plantation. 
 
Mr. Kwaseng could not be reached for comment yesterday.
 
Mr. Pheap and his companies have been destroying Cambodian forests and violating the rights of ethnic communities who live in them, according to a February 2015 report by London-based Global Witness entitled “The Cost of Luxury.” 
 
“This eight-month investigation recorded tons of rare timber being trucked out of Cambodia’s national parks and shipped to Hong Kong,” the report said. “Logging of luxury-grade timber is outlawed in Cambodia, and the global trade in Siamese Rosewood has been restricted since 2013, but Chinese demand for antique-style Hongmu furniture is increasing and the illegal trade has ballooned since the ban was announced,” it said.
 
“During months of interviews with loggers, state officials, police and activists, our investigators kept coming back to one man, who we’ve dubbed the ‘King of Rosewood’,” the report said, identifying the individual as Mr. Pheap.
 
In July 2014, Mr. Pheap had returned about 20,000 hectares of ELC land in Virak Chey National Park to the government. It had been occupied by ethnic minorities.   
 
“The Cost of Luxury” alleged that Try Pheap Group had been using its ELC licenses to bulldoze trees beyond the boundaries of its ELCs. The group also felled protected, valuable trees around its ELC, the report said, adding that Mr. Pheap had previously been an advisor to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
 
Ouch Leng, director of the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force, expressed skepticism about Friday’s letter from Mr. Pheap. People who live near ELC’s controlled by his group and NGO working to protect the environment are well aware that Try Pheap Group is the largest company in the timber business. It has a nationwide network, Mr. Leng said, adding that this allows it to purchase timber everywhere.  
 
“A thief never admits he is a thief when he gets caught,” Mr. Leng said. He said that the way to solve deforestation was to put an end to the timber business. This is the only way to protect Cambodia’s remaining forests, he added. 
 
“If the government does not end all licenses for the timber business, this proves that the government does not have the will to protect forests, and it is the government itself that participates in deforestation crime,” Mr. Leng said.
 
The Anti-Deforestation Committee was created by Prime Minister Hun Sen on January 15 this year, and comprises 10 members from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Environment, as well as the governors of six provinces that border Vietnam in the northeast. Conservation groups have applauded its creation and are watching closely to see if it can finally bring an end to rampant illegal logging and other forest crimes. 
 
 

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