A group of environmental NGOs has called on the European Union to postpone signing a trade deal on tropical timber with Vietnam until Vietnam declares a moratorium on illegal timber imports from Cambodia’s forests.
Seven non-governmental organizations issued a joint statement on Wednesday saying that there are serious flaws in the agreement because of the continuous flow of illegal timber into the Vietnamese market from neighbouring countries, especially from Cambodia.
Ouch Leng, an environmental activist and chairman of the Cambodia Human Rights Task Forces, said the EU must not sign the timber trade agreement with Vietnam.
“The great destruction of Cambodia’s forests is also caused by the EU. It is clear that Vietnam has been smuggling timber from Cambodia for decades,” Mr Leng said, “It is difficult to defend because Vietnam has long had economic and political influence on Cambodia.”
“The EU must be clear with its willingness to protect forests and the environment,” he added.
The EU is scheduled to sign the Voluntary Partnership Agreement, a trade deal on timber with Vietnam under the European Timber Regulation, this month.
The NGOs said that Vietnamese timber traders bribe Cambodian officials in provinces to get timber while indigenous people were coerced to sell their ancestral forests.
It said that Vietnamese timber traders continue to openly advertise Cambodian timber on the internet, with most of the products on display in violation of Cambodian export regulations.
“The European Union prides itself on promoting international standards in its trade negotiations. The VPA with Vietnam lacks key provisions that observers see as crucial for the VPA to fulfil its intended purpose,” the NGOs said. “The acceptance of a continuous flow of illegal timber from Cambodia puts the commitment of the Vietnamese government in doubt and thereby the viability of the VPA itself.”
EU Ambassador to Cambodia George Edgar said yesterday that he would seek advice about the VPA from his officials in Brussels.
“This is an issue for which the European Commission is responsible. I will seek advice from colleagues in Brussels,” Mr Edgar said.
Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon said yesterday that the government will observe developments closely.
“I joined a meeting earlier. The Vietnamese side has clearly presented its plan for the agreement. I think the EU is smart enough to be aware of what conditions are set and I also think the EU will definitely run this agreement to protect the forests from illegal logging,” Mr Sakhon said.
“The EU and I are trying to prevent illegal logging. We are working together to protect the forests. We will take action against any move that destroys forests,” he added.
Environment Ministry spokesman Neth Pheaktra said yesterday the ministry did not have any comment on the deal, but noted that Cambodia was committed to protecting natural resources and conserving biodiversity in the country’s protected areas.
“The Ministry has strengthened its organisational capacity and is stepping up cooperation with concerned ministries and institutions,” Mr Pheaktra said.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng last month decried organised forest crime and collusion with state officials in illegally harvesting, transporting and exporting timber.
In June, the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency released a report saying that more than one million cubic metres of illegal timber flowed unhindered from protected areas in Cambodia’s northeast provinces to Vietnam as the latter continued its role as a serial illegal timber trade offender.