The owner of a cement company in Cambodia plans to log a vast tract of forest designated for clearance by the government as part of a controversial hydropower dam project, prompting concerns from a local rights group that the firm may harvest luxury timber outside of the proposed area.
The private contractor will apply for a license to log wood from 36,000 hectares (89,000 acres) of land earmarked as a reservoir for the Lower Sesan 2 hydropower dam in Cambodia’s Stung Treng province and will export the timber to neighboring Vietnam, company owner Suos Bunnarith said Tuesday.
“I will submit a request to Samdech [Prime Minister Hun Sen] and if Samdech allows it, we will begin,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Suos Bunnarith said the government had planned to burn the trees in the area, which are considered less valuable than luxury species such as rosewood, but that his company hopes to export them as timber to Vietnam at a price of U.S. $100-200 per ton.
The company, which Suos Bunnarith claims is affiliated with telecommunications network Mobitel under majority owner Kith Meng, will build a U.S. $2 million sawmill to process the wood for export and also plans to supply cement for the construction of the Lower Sesan 2 if the logging license is approved, he said.
The 400-megawatt dam on the Sesan River is being jointly developed by Cambodia’s Royal Group, Hydrolancang International Energy Co., and a subsidiary of Vietnam Electricity, at a cost of U.S. $781 million, and is expected to provide the government of Cambodia with around U.S. $30 million in tax revenue annually.
But villagers say the project will affect their culture and customs, disturb the burial sites of their ancestors, and destroy the rivers and forests they rely on daily for their livelihoods.
Scrutiny of proposal
Stung Treng deputy provincial governor and spokesman Doung Pov told RFA he had not received a request from Suos Bunnarith’s company to log the dam’s proposed reservoir area.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the government had not received any documentation from the contractor, but the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and the Ministry of Economy and Finance, would study the proposal before making any decision.
“The request must be sent to the ministries in charge before proceeding to the Council of Ministers,” he said, adding that he would welcome any investment that might benefit the country.
However, the Stung Treng provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc Hou Sam Ol warned that any approved investment should be “legitimate” and the developer shouldn’t use its license as a pretext to log luxury wood outside of the designated area.
“We are concerned that the company may use the license … to do something else,” he said, referring to cases where developers have been found to illegally log higher quality trees from beyond their concessions and pass them off as harvested from the approved area.
In February, the London-based environmental watchdog Global Witness said in a report that China’s voracious demand for luxury furniture is driving a multimillion-dollar illegal trade in rosewood in Cambodia, supported by tycoon Okhna Try Pheap, who controls a network that exports the timber.
The kingpin of the company involved in the illegal logging network operates with the complicity of government, military, police and customs officials in felling rare trees, transporting them across Cambodia, and loading them onto boats headed for Hong Kong, the report said.
Cambodia’s export of Siamese rosewood logs, which are used to make pricey reproduction Qing and Ming Dynasty furniture in China, rose 150 percent between 2013 and 2014, it said, noting that Hun Sen’s government banned the harvesting and export of the wood, known as Hongmu, in 2013.
Reported by Prach Chev for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.