Timber smugglers drive illegally cut logs from Cambodia's Virachey National Park to the Vietnam border in February 2017. Photo: Environmental Investigation Agency
Timber smugglers drive illegally cut logs from Cambodia's Virachey National Park to the Vietnam border in February 2017. Photo: Environmental Investigation Agency

Despite official pledges to halt the trade, smugglers in Cambodia and Laos are finding ways to illegally ship timber to neighboring Vietnam. The precious hardwood is often used in furniture factories that ship their products largely to China.

This lucrative illegal trade in Cambodia has been exposed largely by environmental activists and patrollers who take great risks in attempting to document the smuggling. Powerful officials and Cambodian businessmen are reported to be supporting and profiting from the smuggling.

Ian Baird, an associate professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says that in both Cambodia and Laos the high prices paid for precious hardwoods has also caused villagers to become heavily involved in illegal logging.

“Villagers often use motorcycles to carry out small but expensive pieces of rosewood, redwood, and other species,” says Baird, who has studied the issues as part of his field work in southern Laos and northeastern Cambodia.

The wood is typically sold by the kilogram to middlemen before it is illegally exported to Vietnam, where it is used mainly by the local furniture industry, with most of the furniture being exported to China and Hong Kong.

The high prices being paid in both Cambodia and Laos have attracted unscrupulous businessmen, who manage much of trade by bribing officials and military officers to look the other way to the cutting and transporting of illegal wood.

Cambodia-Illegal Logging-O’Tabok-Virachey National Park-February 2017 (2) – EIA
Timber is moved from Cambodia’s Virachey National Park at the O’Tabok clandestine border crossing into Vietnam, February 2017. Photo: Environmental Investigation Agency

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s crackdown on free speech and independent media as well as his decision to dissolve the country’s main opposition party has limited public discussion of illegal logging.

Hun Sen once stated that he would cut off his own head if he couldn’t halt the illegal trade. But according to a thoroughly researched, 89-page report prepared by the London-based environmental group Global Witness, many members of the prime minister’s own family were benefiting from the illegal logging trade as of 2017.

The Global Witness report concluded that despite forestry reforms initiated by the prime minister himself, large-scale illegal logging operations were the preserve of a relatively small number of people who were relatives or friends of the prime minister or other senior officials.

Hun Sen denied the allegations and the report was banned in Cambodia. But the government’s critics continue to speak out on the sensitive issue.

Mu Sochua, an exiled opposition politician, said that despite a ban on Cambodian timber exports to Vietnam imposed in January and the creation of a high-level task force headed by National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha in early 2017, “illegal logging continues in Cambodia’s national parks, in community-protected areas, in areas designated as land concessions, and in wildlife sanctuaries.”

This is all happening under the control of business tycoons who Mu Sochua claims have close links to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is also president of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), attends a ceremony to mark the 66th anniversary of the establishment of the party, at Koh Pich island in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, June 28, 2017. REUTERS/Samrang Pring
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on June 28, 2017. Reuters/Samrang Pring

Environmental advocates and campaigners have paid a high cost for attempting to document illegal logging in Cambodia. On January 30, three Cambodian forest patrollers were shot and killed in northeastern Cambodia by suspects believed to be members of Cambodia’s border forces.

According to a Radio Free Asia report, the three had confiscated chainsaws and motorcycles from eight illegal loggers in a wildlife sanctuary near the Vietnamese border in Cambodia’s Mondulkiri province.

The three included a police officer, an Environmental Ministry ranger, and a local worker for the New York-based nongovernmental organization Wildlife Conservation Society.

Officials said that police suspected Cambodian border forces who supported the loggers were responsible for the killings. Authorities have established a special commission to investigate the incident.

According to Global Witness – apart from the three forest patrollers slain last month – as many as 20 environmental advocates and campaigners have been killed in Cambodia since 2005. Others have been jailed, attacked or threatened with assassination.

In a Nikkei Asian Review report, veteran foreign correspondent Denis Gray quoted Ouch Leng, a prominent environmental activist, as saying that the rampant pillaging of forests is perpetrated by a “business mafia” in collusion with senior Cambodian government officials.

“I am aware that I may not live much longer,” Ouch Leng said in the report. “But I will try to go on with my work in order to serve as a good model for young people, to engage people to protect the forests and environment.”

Cambodia – Illegal Logging – Deforestation – O Leav – Satellite Image- March 2017-EIA
Satellite imagery of a log depot situated in protected forest land at O Leav, Cambodia. Image: Environmental Investigation Agency

Ouch Leng has focused many of his efforts on the Prey Lang forest reserve in northern Cambodia. Located west of the Mekong River and covering nearly 1,400 square miles, Prey Lang is one of Southeast Asia’s last remaining lowland forests.

At one point in 2016, Hun Sen’s government was forced to crack down on some of the illegal logging in the forest, but the sawmills there were never shut down and are now reported to be fully operational.

Prey Lang had become a model for community-organized patrolling to counter illegal logging. Starting in 2006, environmental activist Chut Wutty had begun organizing a grassroots forest protection network in Prey Lang.

But Wutty was shot and killed on April 26, 2012 while attempting to expose illegal logging rackets involving military officials in a protected forest in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province.

In authoritarian Laos, environmental activists exist but they tend to lie low. Public discussion of illegal logging is mostly limited to the rare moments when the Lao government speaks about it.

The government has on occasion announced crackdowns. And government officials speaking anonymously have also disclosed cases of smugglers being apprehended.

A hardwood rain forest in Laos, June 10, 2017. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

On December 23 last year, for example, customs officers in the central Bolikhamxay province arrested the Vietnamese driver of a truck carrying hundreds of rosewood logs buried under boxes of Red Bull energy drinks to the border with Vietnam.

A Lao official told Radio Free Asia’s Lao language service that police had received advanced notice that the logs would be smuggled into Vietnam through a border gate and that the driver had no papers proving that the wood was legally his.

Some of the timber illegally harvested in Laos is obtained from areas marked for road building, mining operations and hydropower dam construction. This can provide an excuse for large-scale logging that would otherwise not be permitted under Lao law.

At the end of last November, the new governor of southeastern Attapeu province had to assure the public that he would hold responsible people involved in an illegal logging scheme that led to the seizure of 27 trucks filled with timber and the downfall of his predecessor.

The London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) reported last year that corrupt government officials and military personnel in Vietnam were complicit in smuggling huge quantities of illegal timber from Cambodia into Vietnam.

Cambodia – O’Tabok – Virachey National Park – February 2017 (3) – EIA
Trucks moving logs from Cambodia’s Virachay National Park towards the Vietnam border at O’Tabok in February 2017. Photo: Environmental Investigation Agency

The officials and military officers were pocketing millions of dollars in bribes from timber smugglers who were allowing hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of logs stolen from Cambodia’s national parks into Vietnam, according to EIA, a nongovernmental organization that investigates environmental crimes.

Cambodia had declared a log export ban. But from November 2016 to March 2017, undercover EIA investigators discovered illegal logging on an unprecedented scale, the monitoring group said.

EIA said that in Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province poachers looted timber in a wildlife sanctuary and in two supposedly protected areas in national parks. Some protected areas were established by funding from the European Union.

EIA said that Vietnamese timber traders not only bribed Vietnamese officials but also had to pay millions of dollars to Cambodian officials to open smuggling routes into Cambodia.

In Laos, the investigative agency said that hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of logs a year flowed into Vietnam in violation of Laos’ log export ban but that this stopped when Laos’ prime minister banned all raw timber exports.

However, based on RFA reporting, it now appears that the Lao logging ban is once again being ignored or at least not uniformly applied.

Cambodia – O’Tang – Illegal Logging – Signpost – Feb 2017 – EIA
A signpost cut from a log pointing the way to Vietnam at O’Tang forest in Cambodia, February 2017. Photo: Environmental Investigation Agency

As the EIA explains, even though the global trade in rosewood furniture had been restricted under a global treaty agreement since 2013, Chinese demand for antique rosewood has actually increased with rising prosperity.

Vietnam plays a key role in meeting this demand through the coastal city of Qui Nhon, located in central Vietnam. More than a dozen furniture factories located in Qui Nhon produce furniture designed for export to China and Hong Kong. Much of the timber for these products comes from Cambodia.

The European Union has been negotiating an agreement with Vietnam that its officials hope will lead to the licensing of legal timber exports from Vietnam to Europe and an end to illegal timber exports to the continent.

The hope is that Vietnam will pass legislation which could become the first major impediment to the ongoing timber smuggling into and through Vietnam, including all of the wood leaving Cambodia.

But according to Jago Wadley, EIA’s senior forests campaigner, even if Europeans and Vietnamese conclude what he says is likely to be “the first such import law in mainland Asia,” implementation at the local level will continue to be a problem.

“There is still plenty of scope for more illegal timber to be smuggled out of Cambodia into Vietnam,” Wadley told Asia Times.

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