Cambodia: Illegal logging still threatens its forests despite ban on timber exports

Pichayada Promchertchoo Channel NewsAsia 8 Aug 16;

Thousands of tonnes of natural forest wood still crossed the border into Vietnam, even after a Cambodian ban early this year. Indochina correspondent Pichayada Promchertchoo follows the timber trail with a 'wanted man'.

SEN MONOROM, Cambodia: The road was pitch black but far from empty. Every minute or so, a muddy motorcycle would emerge from the dark and disappear within seconds, laden down with logs tied to the back seat.

“They come through all the time,” Ouch Leng told me as we watched them fly past the Pech Chreada Forestry Administration office. Dark mud stains hinted at an arduous journey through the nearby forest, a protected area of nearly 430,000 hectares in eastern Mondulkiri, wet with monsoon rain.

“They only pay the authorities when they come back from the Vietnam border with money,” the 42-year-old added.

Hours before, I had met Leng in Phnom Penh for the first time. He said he was being watched, but still offered to take me into the forest, where rare trees are believed to be illegally felled as part of a black-market international trade.

Our short discussion had quickly turned into a seven-hour drive to Sen Monorom, the capital of Mondulkiri. The border province is home to one of the largest protected forests in the country, and forms part of the timber trail that leads to Vietnam.

I was driving with one of Cambodia’s “most wanted men”.

Death threats are part of life for environmental activist Ouch Leng, 42, who investigates illegal logging.

But Leng is not a criminal. He is an environmental activist, human rights lawyer and the winner of this year’s prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for Asia. He has spent more than 20 years fighting to save Cambodia’s forests, and travels the country, often undercover, to investigate logging.

Death threats have become part of his life; so has living in a safe house. The forest defender says that danger lurks everywhere, and he is constantly on the run.

“They haven’t pressed any legal charge against me yet because what they want is my life,” he said with a smile. “I’ve never been afraid. I’m just trying to work.”

“They” are people with influence, who want Leng to shut up. “They” are among the powerful few who defy the law and profit from one of the most lucrative markets in the country: The timber trade.

CRACKDOWN ON ILLEGAL TIMBER TRADE

The multi-billion dollar business has been thriving, fuelled by illegal logging and corruption as well as legitimate efforts.

Last year, Cambodia became Vietnam’s largest source of timber imports. At least 435,600 cubic metres of natural forest logs and sawn wood, worth more than US$380 million, left its borders for Vietnam, according to the General Department of Vietnam Customs’ statistics obtained by US environmental group Forest Trends.

“The rate of growth has been astonishing,” the group said in its most recent report, which showed the volume of imported logs skyrocket – from 383 cubic metres in 2014 to 57,700 cubic metres in 2015. That's a near 15,000 per cent increase.

The volume of sawn timber imports from Cambodia also expanded in the same period, the report showed, from 153,500 cubic metres to 377,900 cubic metres.

Of those sawn timber imports, 82 per cent was classified as either high-value species or luxury species, and was mainly for re-export to China, Hong Kong and India or as semi-finished products for global markets.

A key driver of this surge in timber exports from Cambodia to Vietnam was the deregulation of import licensing by Hanoi. Import procedures were simplified and timber imports were allowed at all border gates between the two countries.

The increase also coincided with a lack of timber supply from Laos and Myanmar, which banned log exports in response to overharvesting.

Adding to the booming business were alleged links between all sorts of people – from loggers to smugglers, community leaders, police officers, soldiers, government officials and business tycoons – accused of depleting Cambodia’s forests at breakneck speed as they chased easy money.

A task force was set up to stop forest crime and a string of raids took place, in an apparent crackdown early this year.

The situation had become so alarming that in January, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen intervened. He imposed a ban on all timber exports to Vietnam.

He ordered the closure of Cambodia-Vietnam border crossings for timber trade and set up a special task force to stop forest crime – a 10-member committee comprising district police, military police and forestry officials led by the National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha.

The order triggered probes into high-profile businessmen. A string of raids took place at warehouses and economic land concessions suspected of illegal activities.

Arrests were made. Tens of thousands of cubic metres of wood were confiscated. For a few months, Cambodia witnessed what seemed like a serious crackdown on the timber trade.

‘TURF WAR BETWEEN LOGGING CARTELS’

But for some observers, the nationwide campaign was nothing more than a turf war between Cambodia’s biggest logging cartels and, after an initial sharp slowdown, business is starting to pick up again.

Most of the apparently confiscated timber has found its way across the Vietnam border, according to Forest Trends.

“According to our sources, the crackdown was triggered by a business dispute between competing logging cartels, rather than an earnest attempt to stamp out the illegal exploitation of Cambodia’s forests,” said Kerstin Canby, Forest Policy, Trade and Finance Program Director at Forest Trends.

“There is little sign of legal follow-up by the authorities. Field research suggests that most of the purportedly confiscated timber has found its way across the Vietnam border already.”

Data from Vietnamese customs obtained by the group shows the timber exports have continued despite the ban. In January, 34,000 cubic metres of wood still found its way into Vietnam. The number plummeted to 5,000 cubic metres in February before growing to 10,000 cubic metres in March.

The reports are politically motivated, and no more wood is flowing out, says Environment Minister Say Samal.

But according to Cambodian Environment Minister Say Samal, these figures are “groundless” and “falsified”.

“I doubt it’s true. How can you move 10,000 cubic metres of wood across the border without anyone noticing?” he told Channel NewsAsia.

“I'm not denying there are cases where people are still conducting illegal activities with regard to the forest. But I'd like to point this out: It is a problem. But is it at the scale that was reported? No, I don't think so.”

The Environment Ministry has been studying various reports about forest crimes and cross checking with people on the ground to understand the real situation, Mr Samal said.

“But the majority of our findings show the reports are just politically motivated. No more wood is flowing out.”

DISRUPTED BUT NOT STOPPED

While the trade may not have been eliminated, the crackdown has disrupted the organised, large-scale smuggling by the well-connected operators who were crossing the borders before.

In Mondulkiri, the impact has been noticeable, according to residents. The streets are seeing fewer timber trucks, and traffic along its border crossings is much lighter.

“Only soldiers and police officers come here now,” said a shop owner near the La Pakhe bilateral border gate, once teeming with people and cars. It is almost deserted.

But the illegal timber trade seems to be adapting.

“We don’t see so many timber trucks nowadays. But there are still a lot of timber motorcycles and cars. They transport wood from the protected forest to buyers elsewhere,” a local resident told me.

“They are mostly small-scale operators avoiding official channels altogether,” Ms Canby added.

From the dark, an old minivan whizzed past. Strips of sawn wood could be seen protruding from the boot.

The vehicle was stopped at one of the checkpoints between Mondulkiri and Vietnam, but its driver seemed to know the drill. Casually, he approached a local officer and in one swift moment, placed some money on his table.

Without much delay, the minivan zoomed off with timber still sticking out like a big, long tail.

“You see that? No arrest! They just let him go,” Leng said bitterly.

“Forest Administration officials, rangers and soldiers just wait to take money from loggers. They even make it easy for them to cross the border.”

TIMBER LAUNDERING

The journey to the protected forest of Mondulkiri was rough and muddy. We set out early on motorcycles and bumped along a winding dirt road for three hours. The sight was alarming.

There was hardly any trace of protected forest left.

Trees had been chopped down and uprooted. Unwanted trunks and huge stumps lay sprawled across the forest. Almost everywhere, plantations spread far out of sight.

Thousands of hectares of what was once a pristine forest are cleared for Economic Land Concessions (ELCs) – a long-term lease that allows investors to use private state land for large-scale agriculture.

Those awarded Economic Land Concessions are allowed to clear the land for agriculture.

“Most ELCs are in forested areas with big trees,” said Sok Ratha, Provincial Coordinator of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) in Mondulkiri.

“The government granted land to private companies to grow rubber, pepper and other crops. Now, the forest is almost completely destroyed. Areas outside ELCs are also threatened.”

The Cambodian Government introduced Economic Land Concessions to stimulate the economy and create jobs for local people. It has granted more than 270 concessions, which, according to the environment minister, span an area of 1.2 million hectares nationwide.

The land is meant for industrial agriculture, which involves cultivating crops, raising animals and constructing facilities to process agricultural products.

Successful applicants are awarded the right to clear the land for agriculture. They are therefore allowed to cut all the trees in the premises, install sawmills to process the legally cut wood and export the products.

But that is not always the case. The scheme soon found itself at the heart of Cambodia’s timber trade, with many ELCs apparently used to cover up illegal logging operations.

Many ELCs are possibly being used to cover up illegal logging operations.

“Once they’ve depleted their land, they’ll cut more trees outside the ELC.

"The wood is then brought to their sawmills, where illegal logs are turned into legal timber. The timber is then transported to other countries through the Vietnam border and the international port at Sihanoukville,” Leng explained.

“This is the strategy of Cambodia’s timber business,” he said.

Nonetheless, Mr Samal is clear: “Let me put it this way: Large-scale illegal logging has been stopped. Period. It's done.”

NO BRIBES, NO BUSINESS

Despite Mr Samal’s certainty, evidence suggests there is some way to go before the illegal timber trade is eradicated in Cambodia, with a well-established, sophisticated system still in place that needs to be dismantled.

In Tbong Khmum, busy roads were full of big trucks. Most of them carried something heavy under huge tarpaulins covering the storage compartment. Tears in the plastic revealed stacks of timber inside.

“Sometimes, what you see is just a hollow frame, with luxury-grade wood hidden in the middle. Nobody checks,” Leng told me as we tailed a small train of timber trucks.

A road sign indicated they were headed towards Trapang Plong International Border Checkpoint. It is one of the main gateways on the timber trail between Cambodia and Vietnam. The area is also home to timber depots, casinos, hotels and inland ports owned by wealthy businessmen.

One of the trucks pulled over at an export customs clearance office. Its driver carried a document in his hands and disappeared through a small entrance.

“He needs an export permit to cross the border,” Leng said.

It did not take long. The driver reemerged, climbed back on his truck and drove off. We followed on a dusty road.

His truck soon joined others that had gone ahead. They were scattered near the border crossing. Some were parked in front of a depot, others a few hundred metres from the international border gate, purportedly ready to enter Vietnam.

Trucks carrying timber usually cross the border late at night, according to Ouch Leng.

“They have to wait for other trucks from the same company because the export permit can only be used once.

"It also indicates the total volume of goods that will cross the border. One truck can carry about 20-30 cubic metres of wood. They usually cross the border late at night,” Leng explained.

“I support the government’s ban. But it’s just a promise that only lasts a short time.”

The sun had already disappeared. There was not much light on the road leading into Vietnam, save for the headlights of transport trucks crossing the border. Their storage compartment was left open. No timber.

But a short walk away, several trucks stood in the dark. Something was covered under big tarpaulins. Leng was sitting by the road with his camera.

“The timber business still operates," he said.

This is the first in a series of reports on forestry issues in Cambodia. Follow Pichayada Promchertchoo on Twitter @PichayadaCNA

- CNA/pp


Cambodian villagers fear for future amid forest burning dispute: Special report
Jack Board Channel NewsAsia 10 Aug 16;

In the second part of a special series on deforestation in Cambodia, Jack Board travels to an area where locals are upset that forest trees are being cleared - to make way for a timber plantation.

KRATIE, Cambodia: A lone wooden hut, standing on metre-high stilts, cuts a lonely shape in the middle of a wasteland. It is an alien structure, surrounded by scarred earth and disfigured, charred remnants of forest

Next to it, a sickly pool of tepid, scum-veiled water barely ripples in the searing heat. In the air hangs the high-pitched buzzing of busy chainsaws. More forest is being cleared - today and every day.

This is Som No’s property in the heart of one of Cambodia’s largest concessions, a “reforestation” project controlled by South Korean firm Think Biotech.

“This land concession causes hardships. It affects everything,” said the 56-year-old former soldier. He is part of the Prey Lang Community Network, guardians of the forest who monitor the area to protect against illegal activity.

“Our lives now are so miserable.”

A densely forested swathe of land in the now largely protected Prey Lang, meaning “our forest”, was handed over to the company in 2010, for development as a designated plantation area.

While Cambodia has exported vast amounts of timber, much of it illegal, over recent decades, there is also growing appetite for wood domestically. Think Biotech’s project is designed to answer the call.

“There are so many huge construction building projects and housing projects in Phnom Penh at the moment. It will be extended to the whole of country in the near future,” Think Biotech director Peter Hwanki Chung told Channel NewsAsia.

“If people just want to keep the forests, how can we supply this timber to people?”

The premise is straightforward: Develop a sustainable forestry industry, which can also help mitigate climate change and put an end to illegal logging and slash-and-burn agriculture, which has left permanent scars on Cambodia’s landscape. Put more simply, plant trees to cut down, instead of clearing existing forest.

Chung predicts the project will eventually supply one-third of Cambodia’s timber needs annually.

But the reality is far more complex. From Som’s perspective, tens of thousands of hectares of valuable, generational forest will be arbitrarily destroyed in order to develop such a project - threatening not only the way of life for hundreds of families, but also their health.

“We know some people don't like our company working in our area and some people want to take issue with our company for their various purposes,” Chung argued. “But, you also understand why this kind of project is needed in Cambodia.”

'NO ILLEGAL THINGS’ HERE

Think Biotech’s plantation is the first of its kind in Cambodia, where deforestation levels have been among the world’s highest since 2000. And answering the government’s call was how Chung described the investment made by his company, which is a subsidiary of leading explosives and weapons manufacturer Hanwha Corporation.

Chung argues that the wood being harvested by his company is minimal and not valuable, and that this land had been widely logged already by the government and a Chinese company decades ago.

“Also, villagers had cut and extracted valuable timber in an illegal way,” he said. “It's secondary forest instead of a virgin area,” he added, explaining that this was one of the reasons the government opened the specific area up for foreign investment and development.

Locals say they have observed timber being trucked out of the concession, initially in daylight before shifting to discrete operations under the cover of darkness. The destination for the timber was unknown, although Cambodia has banned timber exports in what the government says is an attempt to stop black market smuggling to Vietnam.

“Now the activity is less intensive and is secret,” said Thai Bunlieng, a Prey Lang Forest patroller who works closely with Som No.

“This month, we saw that the company secretly transported timbers out of their concession on two different occasions in a total of 11 trucks – five trucks at night and six trucks in the day time,” he said.

“Since we started this project in 2012, we have never done any illegal things,” Chung countered. “We do not like to spoil the good name of our country and our company through this kind of project.”

He accused locals of having ulterior motives to “get their hands on more land and timber illegally”.

“But we cannot allow it. We have a duty to protect this government estate land.”

He also added that the project would result in “increased forest density and “improve environment conditions”, which would eventually lead to carbon credits from the United Nations.

However, a 2016 study by the International Institute of Social Studies described the project as “industrial slash-and-burn” and the “frontier of deforestation”.

The authors argued that converting diverse primary forest into an industrial forest does not serve to combat climate change; rather, it worsens the issue by reducing carbon stocks and increasing local temperatures.

It is a calculated cost, according to Cambodia’s environment minister Say Samal who, while conceding a loss of biodiversity, asserts that the country needs projects like this to develop.

“We have to be realistic, we want to build our economy, we want to create jobs for our people so we have to balance that out,” he said.

Meantime, the company and government have plans for a reforestation expansion into neighbouring Stung Treng province, which has prompted concern from the commune likely to be impacted.

Channel NewsAsia understands that the size of that area could be as much as double that of the existing project in Kratie, likely to lead to more huge losses in the Prey Lang Forest.

A working group is currently comparing project proposal maps with aerial maps to see if there is an overlap with Prey Lang land protected by a government sub-decree since April. Nan Ony from NGO Forum says he is confident the project will be suspended if that proves to be the case.

He is leading an investigative report into the various disputes surrounding both the Kratie and Stung Treng projects. It is an arbitration role involving affected communities, various levels of government and Think Biotech that can be frustrating and slow.

“We are an NGO, we are just a middle man. We try to bring the community and authority to the table to find a common solution. We are not solving the problem,” he said.

Until then, the sides remain at loggerheads, fighting over a forest that is changing by the day.

‘LET US BE KILLED’

Som has lived in the area, in Kratie province and on the banks of the mighty Mekong River, for three decades. He is principally a rice farmer but has adopted a more confrontational role against Think Biotech and the developments around his home turf, one of the largest, most diverse tropical rainforests in Southeast Asia.

He is outspoken and bold, sometimes a risky combination when it comes to contending with the larger forces at play in Cambodia’s forest industry. His phone rings constantly and he speaks with a cheeky grin: something is always stirring. Yet his message is serious.

“We are farmers. We count on the land,” he said. “If we don’t go to protest, the company would take all of our land and we cannot live without land.

“If we go and they kill us, let us be killed. If we stay here, we have no land to farm… we are going to die.”

Som and his son Vanda, a former employee of Think Biotech – he claims he was fired because of his father’s activism – still venture into concession land often to tend to their rice field, which are planted haphazardly around the smouldering ruin of former forest. The elder explains why the land looks like it does.

“First they clear it of the valuable wood. Then they burn it. Then they clear it all out,” Som said.

Both of them wander through the landscape identifying certain types of trees and picking at vegetables growing at their feet. They stop and look as two peacocks cry out as they fly past towards a still-standing tree in the distance. “They have no home now,” Som says, almost angrily.

Vanda speaks of his childhood when he would come to “the farm” and spend time by the stream.

“It was a thick forest with tall trees. We used to play here and swim. We just brought salt and mango then we placed a net in the stream, it was very clear, and we caught fish,” he said.

"It was completely, totally different," he laments.


Cambodian rangers take on villagers in forest war: Special report
Jack Board Channel NewsAsia 12 Aug 16;

In part 3 of a special series on deforestation in Cambodia, Jack Board goes on patrol with the armed rangers tasked with protecting the forests from those cutting down protected trees for a fast buck.

SRE AMBEL, Cambodia: Under a thick tree canopy and steady drizzle, a squadron of motorcycles traverse a trail made muddy and sticky by the ongoing wet season. A road becomes a track that becomes wilderness.

As small creeks form below their wheels, suddenly the four rangers come to a halt, kill their engines and listen intently in silence

“We hear chainsaws,” their leader, Volodomyr Mokh, says, his eyes lit up with intensity. “Now we try to find them.”

In one of Cambodia’s most precious forests, a war is going on.

The quartet follows the high-pitched buzzing as best they can through the dense forest. Evidence of the possible wielders of the chainsaws proves not too difficult to find – a burnt-out campfire, clothes hastily left behind in hidden enclaves in the foliage, and freshly cut piles of wood.

“They were probably here this morning. This amount they can’t take so they leave it,” says Mokh, a serious Ukrainian with a broad chest and a searching gaze. He is a man who has seen and committed violence in his life, formerly serving in his country’s military and the special team of Ukraine’s police force.

Now, he is deeply embroiled in a complex game of hide and seek pitting villager against ranger, as part of the Southern Cardamoms Forest Protection Program - a joint cooperation between the Cambodian government and non-government organisation Wildlife Alliance.

The rangers undertake long missions into the forest that last five to six days.

Life is tough out here and the stakes are high – jail time and heavy fines await perpetrators. For the Southern Cardamoms, the cost could be the irretrievable loss of ancient forest and extinction of its precious wildlife.

Mokh and a handful of local police officers are about all that stands between the forest and the type of environmental destruction that has scarred much of this country.

“Everyone in the village comes to the forest. Everyone. To take something,” Mokh says after discovering three motorcycles abandoned by their owners deep into the hunt.

That ‘something’ refers to the highly-valuable wood taken from felled trees and endangered animals, including civets, pangolins and turtles, which are ripe for the black market in Vietnam and China.

With no evidence of wrongdoing but only strong suspicions, the rangers disable the vehicles. “There’s no reason to come here but for wood or wildlife,” he explains. “So we have to track them.”

Despite the lead, the forensic-like examination of tyre tracks and footprints and a vault of military thinking, that task proves tough in the conditions.

“It’s difficult, it’s been raining all day,” Mokh says. “Normally we can see the oxcart trail where they go to cut and where they keep the chainsaws and wood. Today, we can only see the fresh tracks and the deep ones.”

Bereft of a path further into the misty mountains, the group backtracks as the rain becomes tropically torrential. They pass villagers huddled and protected in basic wooden houses but press on.

Crime does not stop for the elements, clearly.

However, not all missions end up with the rangers left empty handed.

Freshly cut trees can easily be found throughout the forest.

A RICH BOUNTY

When Mokh pulls open the large storage shed door at his ranger station, he reveals an astonishing sight.

Hundreds of chainsaws lay stacked on the floor, against the wall and on wooden shelving. He says there are about 860 chainsaws that have been confiscated from the forest; it is illegal in Cambodia to have one without a government permit, which is very difficult to obtain.

This collection has been gathered over the past four years, at an average of about 20 each month lately. The rangers have plans to destroy them at some point, but for now the giant stack remains an impressive visual show of progress.

More than 800 chainsaws have been confiscated in the past four years.

As well, their bounty includes tonnes of luxury wood worth tens of thousands of dollars, hundreds of animal snares, chemical barrels to be used for drug production, dozens of motorcycles and literally a stack of boats that have been deliberately sunk and stored under water in the river in front of the station.

The vehicles can be collected by their owner if they pay a transactional fee, but Mokh says they rarely are.

This ranger station, just outside the town of Sre Ambel, is one of six under the Wildlife Alliance banner dotted throughout the Southern Cardamoms - part of one of the region’s most precious rainforests, still unexplored in many parts.

It is home to dozens of threatened species of animals and trees. But much of its landscape has been routed by economic land concessions, granted by the Cambodian government to big companies that normally deforest their territory and convert it to sugar cane or rubber plantations.

Cambodia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. According to satellite data from Global Forest Watch, the country experienced a 14 per cent average increase in forest loss each year between 2001 and 2014.

Much of the country’s sanctuaries and national parks have been ripe targets. In the Southern Cardamoms, a transnational highway ripped through the forest in 2002 and opened the gates to more land grabbers and poachers.

Since then, the rangers have held their battle on grounds where they can make tangible progress - against small local operators who feed the insatiable illegal timber trade. Rare rosewood is in high demand from Vietnam and operators go to drastic lengths to deliver it.

As a result, the rangers’ clandestine night operations have become a necessary weapon against their increasingly sophisticated adversaries.

The rangers are armed but say conflict is rare, as most offenders flee the scene.

TRUST AND SACRIFICE

On a clear night, with stars overhead, the rangers plot their next move.

Always, the tactics need to be unpredictable – different times, different routes and different targets.

Mohk and his assistant Sowath Rethy, a thin, bright, fresh-faced 28-year-old from Battambang, explain how many locals conspire to foil their missions. Spies are everywhere, smugglers are in constant communication and the rangers are often fed deceptive information to lead them off the trail.

Mokh and Rethy, the only English speakers on the team, do not even trust many of their own team members. It means cell phones are often banned from missions and the MPs – as the police uniformed rangers are known – are not given any details of the nature of the operation, even when it is underway.

All of the individuals have their own network of informants, relationships that Mokh understands can quickly become crooked when serious money is involved. Yet, without tip-offs the rangers are working blind.

Rethy says they normally pay sources up to US$50 for solid information but the amount fluctuates depending on what is uncovered. He admits how difficult it is going up against a well oiled, generationally engrained system of people with intimate local knowledge - and how often it is infighting that delivers result.

“Sometimes loggers fight among each other and give each other in. That helps a lot,” he says. “We need a lot of people to help us.”

Tonight, they are acting on information received from an informant – a large amount of wood is ready to be moved. The response is triple-pronged: An initial decoy vehicle, speedboat interceptor and a night ambush using motorcycles.

The previous night they had some success, seizing a tractor carrying a bundle of construction wood, worth a few hundred dollars. As usual, the perpetrators fled when they were intercepted to avoid arrest.

Buoyed by that breakthrough, Mokh begins proceedings at 9pm with a slow survey of the same road he targeted in the rain the previous day. His muscular utility truck is nothing but obvious, with high beam lights blasting holes in the darkness and Russian hip-hop reverberating in the cabin.

This is all about sending a message - notice us.

He slows and sees buffaloes standing idle, tied to a stake by the roadside. “Probably waiting for work,” he exclaims with anticipation. The powerful animals are the vehicles of choice to move large quantities of wood from the forest.

“They don’t go every day but three times a week for sure. I hope we will be lucky.”

Regular night ambushes are essential to trying to stop the secretive movement of timber.

It is after midnight by the time that Rethy and two other rangers are plying that same stretch, only now on motorcycles and dressed in civilian clothing. The hope is that an earlier patrol will embolden villagers to act, only to be ensnared by this subtler rearguard patrol.

The trio hitches hammocks 20 metres from the roadside and settles in. A lack of sleep is a familiar pattern for them. “Normally I get about four hours a night,” Rethy says.

On longer patrols, the rangers can be away from base walking for five or six days deep into the mountains. If they make a large seizure it can be even longer, meaning days without proper rest, food or even water in the dry season.

“It’s tough but we have to do it,” he adds, while speaking about how much he misses his newly born son, back home with his wife hundreds of kilometres away.

These men are sacrificing more than their time to save this forest.

Throughout the night the group is watching the light, and the road, more than their watches. And as the dark filters into dawn it becomes clear that their trap has failed.

Fresh oxcart tracks, just up the road, veering suddenly into the undergrowth tells them they were close. Perhaps the full moonlight gave them away this time.

How long will they have to keep this up? “Things aren’t going to change. Most Cambodians are poor and don’t have good jobs. The forest is right there for them,” Rethy laments.

Still, the men continue to stand proud in their uniforms here. This program is unique in the country, and most other forest areas in Cambodia suffer from lack of real protection.

“You feel like you’re doing something right. Humanity should change but it’s better to do something than nothing,” Mokh says.

“I can’t change the world but I can protect this area.”


Cambodia’s large-scale illegal logging is ‘done’
Pichayada Promchertchoo Channel NewsAsia 14 Aug 16;

In the final part of a special series on Cambodia's endangered forests, Environment Minister Say Samal tells Channel News Asia that large-scale illegal logging in Cambodia has been stopped. This is despite a report that said the timber flow continues between Cambodia and Vietnam even though a ban has been put in place.

PHNOM PENH: The Government of Cambodia is serious about tackling deforestation and “no more wood” has travelled to Vietnam since Prime Minister Hun Sen introduced a timber export ban earlier this year, Environment Minister Say Samal said in an interview with Channel NewsAsia.

“The ban is effective. No more wood is flowing out. Large-scale illegal logging has been stopped. It’s done,” he said.

In January, the Cambodian prime minister imposed a ban on all timber exports to Vietnam and ordered the closure of border crossings to prevent timber smuggling. The move is part of the government’s nationwide crackdown on illegal deforestation.

“Processed wood, for example, which you turn into furniture or finished products, you can take it out. But for semi-finished products, you aren’t allowed to take them out anymore,” Samal explained.

His comment came after US environmental group Forest Trends reported the timber flow still continues despite the ban. The group said 15,000 cubic metres worth about US$12 million still made it through border crossings in February and March, citing the General Department of Vietnam Customs’ statistics.

“Timber still finds its way across the border into Vietnam months after the ban was announced. These are mostly small-scale operators avoiding official channels altogether,” said Kerstin Canby, Forest Policy, Trade and Finance Program Director at Forest Trends.

But the environment minister brushed off the report, claiming it was driven by politics.

“I doubt that it’s true. Some of these reports are politically motivated. It’s groundless. They never come and talk to us or ask us to verify. The majority of these reports are just false,” he said.

The nationwide crackdown on illegal timber trade has been “quite successful”, according to the Cambodian minister, although illegal logging still continues among small-scale operators.

“This is very hard for us to crack down. We admit that this still occurs. But on a large-scale that we used to see, we’ve been able to put a stop to that.”

‘WE HAD PROBLEMS’

In 1990, Cambodia’s forest covered 12.94 million hectares, or about 73 per cent of its total land, according to the World Bank. In a steady downward trend, it shrank to 9.46 million hectares, or 53.6 per cent in 2015.

Deforestation in the country is influenced by several factors. But among the main ones is economic land concessions (ELC), a long-term lease that allows investors to use private state land for large-scale agriculture. The government introduced the scheme to boost the economy and create jobs for local people, resulting in more than 270 ELCs covering at least 1.2 million hectares nationwide.

Concessionaires are allowed to clear forest land for industrial agriculture. They can harvest trees in the premises, process the wood and export it legally. However, many have simply left after depleting the trees. Others allegedly continue using the land to launder timber from outside the permitted area.

“We had problems,” Samal admitted while maintaining the government’s commitment to preserve the country’s biodiversity. “We’re going step by step in protecting our forests.”

And that, he claims, includes conducting land registration, reducing the maximum lease duration from 90 years to 50 years, cracking down on illegal logging, banning timber exports and reviewing all the ELCs to ensure everyone follows the rules.

“For those that didn’t abide by the rules and regulations, we cancelled the investments altogether. We’ve been very strict but fair,” Samal said.

“No more ELCs are to be given out. The timber export ban is going to be effective forever from now on. We don’t allow any timber to flow out of the country.”

Thousands of tonnes of wood confiscated during the nationwide crackdown will be sold in public auctions, he added, with the income generated to be used to improve Cambodia’s education sector.

COMMUNITY FORESTRY

Besides ELCs, the environment minister argued ordinary citizens themselves have also contributed to deforestation due to the rich rewards on offer.

“With one hectare of rice, they probably won’t earn US$1,000 per year. But if they go into the forest and cut down a few trees, they might earn that much in a very short time. So that’s the economic incentive that makes things very difficult,” Samal explained, adding a severe lack of forest rangers also means many illegal activities continue unchecked.

"I'm not denying that there are problems. We're on it," he said.

In its battle against deforestation, the environment ministry is planning to turn more land into national parks and wildlife sanctuaries and combine the existing protected forests into one biological unit.

It is also gearing up for co-management of protected forests, which covers about 6 million hectares nationwide. More civil societies and local communities will be invited to safeguard their local forest through the Community Forestry (CF) programme.

There are more than 400 CF communities in Cambodia, formed voluntarily by local residents. Members can use forest resources in a sustainable manner while participating in decentralised management as well as protection of forest resources. But according to Samal, the ministry is also pushing for some of them to become tourist attractions.

“We’ve seen people who used to hunt become tour guides, taking tourists out for bush walking around national parks. That’s the result we want to see and spread to other parts of Cambodia,” he said.

“It is a strategy to move them away, step by step, from the forest in a sustainable manner.”

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