Minister’s Environment Day Claims In Doubt

Environment Minister Say Sam Al on Sunday declared an end to large-scale logging in eastern Cambodia and said the vast majority of property disputes sparked by land-grabbing sugarcane plantations had been settled, though NGOs disagreed.

In mid-January, the government set up a special task force to root out illicit timber stocks across the east and ordered an immediate halt to all wood exports to Vietnam, a tacit admission that much of it was illegal.

Environment Minister Say Sam Al, left, and Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron, right, look at goods on display during an event to mark World Environment Day in Phnom Penh yesterday, in a photograph posted to Mr. Chuon Naron’s Facebook page.
Environment Minister Say Sam Al, left, and Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron, right, look at goods on display during an event to mark World Environment Day in Phnom Penh yesterday, in a photograph posted to Mr. Chuon Naron’s Facebook page.

In a speech marking World Environment Day in Phnom Penh on Sunday, Mr. Sam Al claimed that the government’s efforts had effectively put an end to “large-scale” logging and export, leaving only scattered families cutting down a few trees at a time.

“I can say here, today, at this hour, that the large-scale timber logging that we used to see is entirely ended and we have shut down the Cambodia-Vietnam border,” he said. “I can say that large-scale logging has ended and only small-scale logging remains, like with families.”

Vietnamese customs data obtained by the U.S. environmental protection group Forest Trends show a significant drop in timber imports since the ban. But they also show that substantial volumes are still getting through and that the traffic is once again on the rise.

According to the customs data, Cambodia’s timber exports to Vietnam dropped from 34,000 cubic meters to 5,000 cubic meters from January to February but picked up again in March, reaching 10,000 cubic meters valued at $9 million.

Reports of timber-laden trucks being caught at the border, and sometimes making it through, have also persisted.

Late last month, a truck packed with 11 tons of rosewood was seized at a border crossing in Tbong Khmum province. Forestry officials in neighboring Svay Rieng province last week failed to stop three trucks loaded with acacia trees from crossing into Vietnam because Cambodian border police refused to help.

Residents along parts of the border have also reported seeing timber smugglers coping with the export ban by shifting the traffic from major checkpoints to smaller ones where enforcement is more lax.

Pen Bonnar, a senior investigator with rights group Adhoc, also cast doubt on Mr. Sam Al’s declaration, noting that it was a common ploy among practiced timber traders to break down their shipments into small hauls to pose as small-time traffickers.

“Dealers always pretend to transport timber as if they are a family going to Vietnam,” he said. “So if it’s a family or a big businessman, they have to stop it all otherwise the forests will keep being destroyed.”

During his speech on Sunday, Mr. Sam Al also claimed that the many land disputes involving sugarcane plantations accused of encroaching on local family farms were nearly all settled, and accused rights groups of standing in the way of progress.

Sugar plantations across Cambodia, many of them owned by CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat and some supplying major food and beverage companies abroad, are accused of forcing thousands of families out of their homes or off their farms. Some rights groups have dubbed the country’s supplies “blood sugar” and called for a boycott.

“When we say this sugar is blood sugar it seems as though we are breaking our rice pot,” the environment minister said. “This industry is being built to create jobs for our people, so if they call it blood sugar we can’t sell the sugar and it is the same as breaking our rice pot.

“But I can say that we have nearly solved the issue,” he said. “Land issues are almost over, like in Preah Vihear and in Koh Kong they are almost ended.”

However, Eang Vuthy, director of Equitable Cambodia, which is helping some of the affected communities fight the plantations, said the minister was far from the mark.

“I don’t think this is a fair assessment,” he said of Mr. Sam Al’s remarks.

He said some 200 families in Koh Kong suing American-owned sugar firm Tate & Lyle in London had yet to settle their dispute and hundreds of families in Oddar Meanchey province evicted to make way for a Thai-owned plantation that never got off the ground were also waiting to be fairly compensated.

Even in Kompong Speu, which Mr. Sam Al singled out as a success story, 160 families fighting a local sugarcane plantation are still negotiating compensation with the firm.

“That’s why I say the issue is still there,” Mr. Vuthy said.

(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)

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