Illegal logging is occurring to a lesser degree but in a more covert fashion since a crackdown was instituted a year ago, according to the first report by the government’s new forest crime monitoring unit.
“Illegal sawmill operations are switching to production at night and are being located deeper into the forest to avoid detection,” states the report. “Prior to the crackdown, the movement of illegal logs and sawn wood was more overt. Now, trends suggest efforts are being made to conceal, hide or use techniques to make it more difficult to detect the movement of illegal timber or wood.”
Such covert techniques, according to the report, include concealing illegally cut wood in vegetation off roads, transporting wood during the nighttime, and even using cars with back seats removed to transport planks of high-grade wood. “During the water festival [last November] what appeared to be boats with festival observers…were actually boats loaded with luxury grade sawn wood that was being transported to Phnom Penh,” the report states.
The assessment is the first of what is intended to be a quarterly report by the new monitoring unit, which is being funded by the aid arms of the British and Australian governments. The unit consists of staff from the ministries of Agriculture and Environment, with London-based watchdog Global Witness serving in an oversight role.
A forest-crimes monitoring program was born out of a concern that Cambodia’s commercially-valuable timber would be essentially logged out within five years unless enforcement was stepped up.
The report praises a recent government crackdown on illegal logging and exports in Mondolkiri province in the northeast, which has resulted in the suspension of top provincial officials including the governor and deputy governor.
“This has sent a strong signal to other provinces, which has been noticeable to Global Witness’ field teams,” Global Witness states in its portion of the forest crimes report.
But while lauding the government for its action in Mondolkiri, Global Witness also warns that the Vietnamese border remains vulnerable to illegal exports, that there are indications that exports to Thailand from former Khmer Rouge territory are increasing, and that “the greatest destruction of forest resources continue to be the illegal activities by legal concessionaires.”
Global Witness also said it was “highly likely” that many provincial officials would not report forest crimes, in part because of legitimate concerns about their safety. “In other cases, provincial officials will be corrupt and actively involved in illegal logging. This problem is widespread and will affect the quantity and quality of information being reported….”
In interviews last week, Forestry Director Ty Sokhun and Conservation Director Chay Samith of the Ministry of Environment played down the corruption aspect, but agreed that officials are often intimidated from reporting forest crimes.
Chay Samith said an environmental official suspended in Mondolkiri believed his life would have been in danger if he had reported the illegal activity occurring there.
“Environmental officials [there] were not bribed, but their mouths were muzzled,” Chay Samith said.
Global Witness also criticized forestry officials from not taking a more active role in monitoring concession areas. The fact that an Asian Development Bank-funded team currently is reviewing Cambodia’s concessions should not be used as an excuse, Global Witness said.
“There is a tendency for the [department of forestry] to try to find reasons to excuse, mitigate or avoid reporting these activities in many cases,” Global Witness said.
The ADB team has been heavily criticized by Global Witness for saying that it likely won’t recommend any concession contracts to be canceled, even though the team acknowledges that every concessionaire examined so far is in violation of its contract.
Ty Sokhun said that judgment should be suspended until the team completes its review in March. He used a metaphor to indicate that concessionaires found in gross violation of the law still might be kicked out of Cambodia by the government.
“If he kills an elephant, he will be punished,” Ty Sokhun said. “But if he kills a parrot, he could be pardoned.”
The forest crimes report also notes that illegal logging is occurring in national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and other protected areas, and procedures are needed to immediately report infractions so authorities can investigate and stamp out the activity. The report said that in Ratanakkiri province in the northeast, some 500 to 1,000 kg of wildlife per day also are being exported.
The report also states mixed shipments of illegal and legal wood are being transported to legal concession factories, in an activity supported by bribes or fees to the military, police and government officials.
Global Witness noted a number of constraints to the forest crime monitoring program, including a lack of resources and what it described as a “turf war” between the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture’s forestry department.
Chay Samith of the Ministry of Environment indicated the so-called turf war is really a case of the government not taking reports of illegal activity by his officials seriously.
For example, he said, unlicensed timber continues to be secretly transported to Phnom Penh at night, despite supposed measures taken by forestry officials.
But Ty Sokhun denied there is any turf war. He indicated that the problem is that the Ministry of Environment doesn’t do a good job verifying its claims.
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