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, according to a new report by an investigative nongovernmental organization issued on Monday.
The London-based Environmental Investigation Agency’s (EIA) report entitled “Repeat Offender: Vietnam’s Persistent Trade in Illegal Timber” says those involved are pocketing millions in bribes from timber smugglers for allowing hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of logs stolen from Cambodia’s national parks to be laundered into Vietnam’s lucrative timber economy.
The report was released days before Vietnam and the European Union are due to sign an agreement whose purpose is to ensure that only legal timber is exported from Vietnam.
EIA said that approximately 300,000 cubic meters of logs have been smuggled out of Cambodia and laundered in Vietnam, and kickbacks to Cambodia authorities have likely amounted to more than $13 million since early last November.
“This is the single largest log-smuggling operation that we have seen for years,” said EIA senior forests campaigner Jago Wadley in a statement. “Vietnam must address this weak approach to any agreement with the EU to combat illegal logging and the associated trade.”
That the EU’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade, or FLEGT, agreement on timber “does not address the fundamental issues which Vietnam is currently ignoring will result in a fundamentally flawed agreement,” he said.
Cambodia, which has a timber export ban in place, closed its border with Vietnam to timber exports in early 2016.
From November 2016 to March of this year, undercover EIA investigators found illegal logging on unprecedented scales in Community Protected Areas (CPAs) in Virachey and Ou Ya Dav national parks and in Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary–protected areas in northeast Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province, some of which are funded by the EU, the statement said.
Despite Cambodia’s timber export ban, Vietnamese state and security officials have facilitated illegal logging in Cambodia and have issued quotas that give the timber lawful status in Vietnam’s economy.
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, agrees with the EIA’s findings.
He said such illegal activities have been occurring for a long time.
“The illegal logging business with Vietnam has been in place since 1986,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service. “Vietnam uses political and economic influence on Cambodia and Laos to export the timber to European countries.”
Sao Sopheap, a spokesman for the Ministry of Environment, dismissed the report’s findings, arguing that Cambodia has banned all timber exports since early 2016.
“We have also asked our Vietnamese counterparts to join us in curbing illegal logging in Cambodia,” he said. “Cambodia and Vietnam have agreed to combat this illegal trade.”
There was no immediate reaction from Vietnam to the report.
Reported by Sel San for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.