Around 1,200 hectares (2,965 acres) of protected forest from a commune in Cambodia’s Ratanakkiri province has been illegally logged for timber and sold to businessmen from neighboring Vietnam through collusion with Cambodian authorities, an environmental watchdog group said Wednesday.
An investigator with the Cambodian nongovernmental organization Mother Nature, who spoke to RFA’s Khmer Service on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said his group spent a month inspecting forest area in Sesan commune, in Ratanakkiri’s Ou Ya Dav district, and located around 20 trucks he said were used by Vietnamese loggers to haul illegally logged timber across the border.
“About 1,200 hectares of [illegally obtained] forest timber was sold to Vietnam through systemic collusion,” he said, adding that the contraband was bring processed in Vietnam’s Gia Lai province.
“We went into Gia Lai province and found many saw mills. We have evidence that Vietnam is collecting wood from Cambodia illegally.”
The investigator showed RFA several minutes of exclusive footage from a documentary Mother Nature is preparing on the illegal timber trade, which purports to show thousands of cubic meters (1 cubic meter = 35 cubic feet) collected from protected areas in Ratanakkiri.
He said the 1,200 hectares of illegally logged timber had been “sold to Vietnamese businessmen” and that logging in the protected areas “is continuing actively and overtly.”
RFA was unable to reach Ministry of Environment spokesman Neth Pheaktra for comment on Mother Nature’s allegations on Wednesday, while the chief of Sesan commune refused to speak with reporters when asked about illegal logging in the area.
Last month, Cambodia’s Minister of Interior Sar Kheng called for a reevaluation of existing laws intended to protect the country’s natural resources, citing widespread illegal logging and other smuggling, but activists have said the problem is linked to corruption, not ineffective legislation.
On Wednesday, Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, the founder of Mother Nature who now lives outside Cambodia, urged the country’s Prime Minister Hun Sen to investigate the illegal logging his group had uncovered, which he said had continued for “many years.”
“[The smugglers] couldn’t do without the collusion of local authorities,” he said.
Gonzalez-Davidson said that based on his findings he would issue a call for the European Union to refrain from importing Vietnamese wood, because much of it is illegally obtained from Cambodia, which he believes is facing a forestry crisis.
“Without proper prevention, the forest won’t last another five years,” he said.
In October, Cambodian civil society groups sent a joint petition to the EU calling on the bloc not to sign an agreement with Vietnam governing the international trade in timber until Vietnam ends its support of illegal logging in Cambodia.
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.
In May last year, a report by the U.K.-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) said that around 300,000 cubic meters (10,594,400 cubic feet) 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.
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 report last year.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.