Cambodia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has ordered its provincial offices to stop all illegal logging and timber trafficking activities in an apparent response to a report exposing an industrial-scale timber laundering operation that Vietnamese companies and corrupt Cambodian authorities started late last year in the country’s northeastern Ratanakiri province.
The report issued on April 8 by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) charges that corrupt government officials and military personnel in Vietnam have been smuggling huge quantities of illegal timber from Cambodia, despite the latter country’s ban on log exports to its neighbor.
Those involved in the operation are pocketing millions in bribes from timber smugglers for allowing hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of hardwood logs stolen from Cambodia’s national parks to be laundered into Vietnam’s lucrative timber economy, the report said.
The government order dated May 8 and publicly released on Tuesday said the agriculture ministry has taken note of the existence of forest and land-clearing as well as the seizure of forest land for private ownership.
“Illegal logging across the country has continued, especially in the areas near the borders with our neighboring countries,” the order said. “The ministry shall therefore issue this order for the forestry officials to stop all illegal logging activities.”
Ouch Leng, an investigative reporter and activist who has exposed illegal logging and corruption in the Prey Lang Forest in northern Cambodia and who won the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize, applauded the move.
He said what appears to be the government’s first official admission that a crackdown on the illicit timber trade is failing is a good sign that the agriculture ministry has acknowledged the problem.
But he added he has no faith in the ministry’s ability to tackle the problem because of its past failures to honor promises to stop illegal logging.
“I don’t think the government is very genuine and determined in setting out strict measures to address these issues," he told RFA’s Khmer Service. “That’s because the people who are involved in the illegal logging business are members of the government or the armed forces.”
Seng Sok Heng, who works in the secretariat of the Prey Lang Community Network, said he has no faith in the ministerial order because some law enforcement officials in the forestry sector will continue accepting bribes for their compliance in illegally exporting timber.
“The cancer in the law enforcement sector has entered a very late stage,” he said. “It’s too little, too late now. Such action should have been taken much earlier.”
The EIA’s report said that approximately 300,000 cubic meters of logs have been smuggled out of Cambodia and laundered in Vietnam, and that kickbacks to Cambodia authorities have likely amounted to more than $13 million since early last November.
Cambodia has had a ban on illegal timber exports to Vietnam since 1986.
Reported by Sokheng Saut for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.