Environment Minister Say Samal claims Cambodia has put an end to illegal logging and timber exports to Vietnam, despite reports of continued, and even rising, levels of forest clearing and timber being transported to the Kingdom’s neighbor.
Mr. Samal also proposed the government cancel all forest land concessions – something that was already agreed upon in 1998 but has yet to be enacted nearly 20 years later.
Speaking at a World Environment Day celebration yesterday at Entrak Tevy High School, Mr. Samal said his strategy of closing all timber transportation border gates to Vietnam will end the sale of illegally logged wood, despite persistent evidence of loggers using both defined border checkpoints – often with police escorts – and illegal border crossings to export 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.”
Mr. Samal was echoing the sentiments of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s anti-logging commission, which claimed this year to have completely stopped illegal logging in the northern provinces. But recent reports by multiple local media outlets have shown an increase in both small-time illegal logging and heavily-funded timber operations.
The environment minister also said he would allow small families to log wood on their land. “If they grow a hectare of rice, they won’t earn $1,000 in one year. But if they illegally cut three or four trees they can also make $1,000,” he said.
“I want everyone to understand we are allowing this but also preventing crimes from happening.”
He added that in 1998, the ministry did in fact set up legislation governing rainforests, but were unable to finish it for unknown reasons. Mr. Samal said that last week, he sent a letter to the government asking them to finish the law, which would cancel all land concessions in the country’s forests.
“We have finished our deep reform,” he said.
In January 2016, Mr. Hun Sen created the National Anti-Deforestation Committee (NADC) to address claims of widespread, open-faced deforestation in the country’s northern provinces. They made a point of publicizing each of their raids, highlighting the vast stores of timber they were confiscating from illegal lumber yards.
Despite the government’s plaudits to itself for the NADC, recent investigations into illegal logging have shown a disturbing continuation, and even rise, in the amount of deforestation happening across the country. Police have been pictured repeatedly taking bribes at border checkpoints, even after the NADC claimed to have finished its work.
Only last week, police in Kampot asked citizens to help them catch illegal loggers who, despite police claims of changing tactics, were openly and brazenly shipping wood on trucks at night through border checkpoints to Vietnam.
Environmental activist Ouch Leng said that despite the creation of the NADC and the designation of protected areas around the country’s dwindling forests, he was still seeing widespread deforestation by illegal loggers.
“If a timber storage and furniture shop still remains, how can we prevent forest crimes? What we want is to stop exporting into Vietnam and China,” said the president of the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force (CHRTF) and winner of the 2016 Goldman Environmental Award.
Mr. Leng criticized the environment minister for claiming that deforestation in the Kingdom had ended despite the requests from police for help in stopping illegal loggers continuing to cut down massive amounts of timber.
He also cited recent cases in Kampong Speu, Kampot and Pursat province, where military police were caught taking bribes and helping illegal loggers cross the border into Vietnam. Sao Sokha, the commander-in-chief of the military police, was forced to appoint special inspectors to investigate the cases.
These examples are only the tip of the iceberg, Mr. Leng said, and directly refuted everything Mr. Samal said yesterday.
“They just say these things to comfort citizens,” he said. “We are the forest’s protector, so I will monitor government officials’ activities to see whether they only speak or act on paper or actually practice what they say.”
During the World Environment Day ceremony yesterday to celebrate the 44th World Environment Day, youth groups and students from various universities came together to promote public awareness about deforestation, hoping to reach and educate youths about the importance of environmental resources.
After the ceremony, the youth groups released a statement saying: “Forests and rivers are life. There should be a solution for environmental problems, forest loss and hydropower dam constructions.”
According to a 2015-2016 annual report by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the amount of forest cover in the Kingdom has decreased from 73 percent to 49.5 percent. Activists have said this number will continue to decrease if illegal logging and forest burning are not stopped immediately.
Environment Minister Say Samal planting a tree during a World Environment Day celebration yesterday. Supplied
The environment minister claimed deforestation in Cambodia had ended, despite widespread evidence and reports of a rise in recent forest crimes. Supplied