Gov’t: China, Vietnam Helping in Timber Fight

May Titthara / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Some legally-acquired timber at a lumber yard in the suburbs of Phnom Penh. KT/Mai Vireak

Environment Minister Say Samal, known for his outlandish and at times false claims about illegal logging and deforestation in the Kingdom, said yesterday that his ministry was collaborating with officials in Vietnam and China – two of the largest buyers of precious Cambodian wood – to shut down illegal wood smuggling through border gates.
 
Speaking at a forum on the contributions journalism has made to the promotion and protection of environmentalism in Cambodia and the Mekong delta yesterday, Mr. Samal said the first stage of their efforts to stop deforestation in the Kingdom – which involved creating a special government commission to stop the illegal timber trade – had been done in conjunction with Vietnam and China, who he says are each working on stopping the trade from their end.
 
“The forest crime crackdown strategy is to close the border gates, and at the same time, Vietnam has publicly announced that they will not allow logging in the central region and timber factories will be closed. And China is also trying to reform so their influence is decreasing the market,” he said.
 
The second stage, he said, was to “take action” against traders using timber depots to house illegally logged wood and prepare court charges against those who have been caught.
 
“Some factories are still using firewood, and that firewood can cause the forest to lose more than the luxury wood because a hectare of luxury wood will only have 20 to 30 trees, so a loss of only 20 to 30 trees is not the forest. But firewood is cut down even to its roots.”
 
The government routinely touts the commission it created in January to deal with illegal logging – the National Anti-Deforestation Committee (NADC) – yet little has come from the six-month effort.
 
Despite claims by Mr. Samal in June that “mass logging is finished,” the head of the committee, commander in chief of the military police Sao Sokha, admitted last month that the illegal timber trade was continuing at a steady pace and police were still having issues stopping loggers.
 
Mr. Samal defended the government’s efforts yesterday, telling the crowd that illegal logging in the Oral Mountains had in fact ended, but only because there were no more trees left on economic land concessions for companies to clear.
 
The blame for any continued logging, he said, was on provincial governors who did not follow his ministry’s demands.
 
“I said and issued an official letter that said that all timber delivered from Kampong Speu, Kampong Chnang, Pursat and Koh Kong provinces are illegal. Even the army, who requested firewood to burn, now does not need to ask for permission,” he said.
 
“So these provincial governors must be responsible to the government if this action happens because the task was transferred already.”
 
But Mr. Samal did echo what many environmentalists have said about the situation in Cambodia, telling the journalists in the crowd that Cambodia was at a crossroads when it came to the protection of the country’s forests and greenery.
 
“This is a golden opportunity for our whole society to complete the land and timber issue because we have come to a crossroads,” he said.
 
Ouch Leng, a forestry activist and president of the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force, agreed that Cambodia was at an important point in its history in relation to illegal logging, but said Mr. Samal was failing to address a key facet of the problem: the buyers of illegally logged wood.
 
“There would be no logging if there were no buyers. Forest crimes still happen even though the government announced a plan to prevent it,” he said. “I do not believe that the environment minister and Prime Minister Hun Sen can completely stop timber transportation to Vietnam and China.”
 
Mr. Hun Sen and officials in the Environment Ministry have taken pains to show they are addressing illegal logging seriously. But many have criticized their efforts as shallow attempts at looking like they were taking the issue seriously rather than actually tackling it.
 
When the NADC said it had finished its work in June, few, if any, court cases filed against those caught logging or selling illegal timber were publicized, and many of the cases are now mired in the country’s moribund court system.
 
Environmentalists also slammed the committee for a series of fires that miraculously started at certain timber warehouses right as members of the NADC arrived, destroying any potential evidence tying the owners to the illegal timber trade.
 
In addition to the committee’s failure to prosecute any of the real players in the illegal logging industry, numerous news outlets have reported a disturbing continuation, and even increase, in the illegal timber trade.
 
In Prey Lang, now a protected area after an intervention by the prime minister, local residents have repeatedly reported that army and government officials are openly working with and for logging companies clearing sections of the forest.
 
Residents in surrounding towns in Prey Lang forest reported that logging companies were in de facto control of their town, monitoring who entered and exited the area. Environment Ministry officials were seen openly allowing large trucks carrying timber to pass in and out of the forest with no effort made to stop them.
 
Other citizens in towns across the country have reported a continuation of open-faced logging and deforestation, specifically in areas along the border with Vietnam.
 
According to a 2015-2016 annual review by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, forest cover fell to only 49.5 percent of the country, down from 73 percent more than a decade earlier. The report said the percentage will continue to fall unless illegal logging, forest burning and land grabs are stopped immediately.
 
In a 2015 report from international non-profit Forest Trends, it said deforestation in Cambodia was continuing because private companies have open access to land concessions, which they often clear of trees before doing anything. This was also occurring in so-called protected forest areas as well, they said.

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