Smugglers working in collusion with corrupt officials on both sides of the border are continuing to move illegally harvested timber from Cambodia’s Mondulkiri province into neighboring Vietnam in spite of government warnings to halt the trade, sources in Cambodia say.
Loggers now use specially modified Toyota land cruisers to move their timber across the border, with as many as 30 vehicles—each carrying from four to six cubic meters of wood—crossing the border each night, a local villager told RFA’s Khmer Service on Oct. 31.
“The timber is transported to Vietnam, where it is bought by local depots,” Kroeung Tola, a Pnong villager in Pech Chreada district’s Bousra commune, said.
Area villagers believe local officials are behind the illegal trade, he added.
Addressing a public gathering on Sept. 23 in Battambang province, Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng spoke out against the continued smuggling in Mondulkiri.
"I would like to send a message to the provincial governor there to resolve this issue," Sar Kheng said. "If not, he will face action."
Reached by RFA, deputy provincial governor Svay Sameang declined to comment, though he had told RFA at the end of August that he would not allow the smuggling of timber from Mondulkiri to continue.
Speaking to RFA on Wednesday, Cambodia Youth Network president Tim Malai voiced concern over the continuing destruction of Cambodia’s forests, adding that local authorities frequently collude with loggers to facilitate the smuggling.
“Authorities use many loopholes to avoid implementing the law. They have been completely corrupted,” he said.
Also speaking to RFA, environmental activist Heng Sros said that authorities take action only against those loggers who fail to pay them bribes.
In May 2017, a report by the U.K.-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) said that around 300,000 cubic meters of timber—including endangered rosewood—had been smuggled out of protected areas in Cambodia to Vietnam with the help of local authorities through some U.S. $13 million paid in bribes between November 2016 and March 2017.
Meanwhile, environmental activists investigating forest crimes have frequently been attacked or killed while carrying out their work.
In January 2018, three Cambodian forest patrollers were killed in Mondulkiri by suspects believed to be members of Cambodia’s border forces in apparent retaliation for seizing equipment from illegal loggers, according to media reports.
Cambodia has long endured the rampant smuggling of logs and timber--often with the complicity of local authorities--to neighbors such as China and Vietnam, where the wood is used to make high-end furniture.
According to the NASA Earth Observatory website, between 2001 and 2014 Cambodia lost a total of 1.44 million hectares (5,560 square miles) of forest, one of the world’s fastest rates of deforestation.
“Though other countries have lost more acres in recent years, Cambodia stands out for how rapidly its forests are being cleared,” the agency said in a 2017 report.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.