A forestry protection group has accused a tycoon with ties to Cambodia’s ruling party of working in collusion with the government to illegally log precious wood from protected habitats in the country.
Chhut Vuthy, president of Natural Resource Protection in Cambodia, said that last month Try Pheap was granted a land concession by the government to develop a hydroelectric dam in the southwestern Cardamom Mountains region.
Instead, he said, the businessman had been ordering his workers to cut high-value timber in the forest reserve and transport it to Vietnam for sale.
“Try Pheap’s company, with the strong support of the military, is selling millions of dollars in timber to Vietnam under the assistance of an unidentified Vietnamese group,” he said.
Try Pheap had cut “most” of the big timber in the area—more than a million cubic meters (35.3 million cubic feet)—and had been using a fleet of Lexus, Land Cruiser, and Range Rover vehicles to ferry it over the border to Vietnam where much of it is then brought to China, Chhut Vuthy said.
“They were not only cut from the central Cardamom Mountains [where he was granted a land concession], but also other places around the area,” he said.
Chhut Vuthy accused Try Pheap of running similar logging operations using land concessions in central Cambodia’s Boeng Peae Wildlife Sanctuary and in northeastern Virachey National Park.
In the Boeng Peae Wildlife Sanctuary, which straddles the border between Preah Vihear and Kampong Thom provinces, Try Pheap has logged some 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres) of precious wood, including highly sought after rosewood varietals, he said.
Chhut Vuthy said that even the roots of a rosewood tree can sell for U.S. $8 per kilogram (2.2 pounds), while a standard plank of rosewood can sell for U.S. $30,000 to Vietnam before being marked up to as much as U.S. $60,000 when sold in China. Exceptional pieces can sell at U.S. $100,000 in Cambodia before being marked up five times in price to Vietnam and again as much to China.
“[There are] at least 10 trucks every day. Each truck carries not less than 40 cubic meters (1,400 cubic feet) of wood to the Derm Dong Prampi Derm border with Vietnam in Kampong Cham province,” he said.
“The Vietnamese receive at least U.S. $1,000 in taxes paid for one cubic meter (35 cubic feet).”
In Virachey National Park in Ratanakiri province, Try Pheap was granted a land concession of nearly 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres), Chhut Vuthy told RFA, saying precious trees in that protected habitat are also facing destruction.
Repeated calls to Try Pheap for comment went unanswered.
Minister of Agriculture Chan Sarun’s assistant said he was too busy to take calls about the land concessions granted Try Pheap.
Try Pheap is known to have strong connections with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which many believe has helped him secure preferential business treatment in the country.
A 2007 report by the London-based Global Witness, a natural resource watchdog, found Try Pheap to be closely involved with Vietnam in a number of business operations.
Global Witness said the tycoon was the driving force behind the business interests of Vietnamese company Hongfu, which made its money from the logging of thousands of hectares of forest in Cambodia. He also owns a casino near the Vietnamese border in Ratanakiri province.
The report referred to Try Pheap as “one of the biggest money-earners for the CPP.”
Chhut Vuthy said Try Pheap also has a strong connection with a senior official in the Council of Ministers, or cabinet, who has helped him to secure state economic land concessions. He identified him as Msas Losh, a secretary of state in the council.
“Most of Cambodia’s natural resources have been granted to companies that have a deep relationship with the Council of Ministers. Most of the decisions from the Council of Ministers have been made by Msas Losh. The latest concession document that I saw had Msas Losh’s name on it,” he said.
“As you know most concessions do not reflect the forestry law, the sub degree on land concessions, the Constitution, or the law on protected [habitat] zones,” he said.
Most concerning, Chhut Vuthy said, is a recent rash of 99-year leases granted to Vietnamese and Chinese companies by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, which he said are likely to lead to greater poverty among Cambodians who rely on the land to make a living.
Chhim Savuth, a human rights investigator for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), said that logging around Cambodia was not only hurting the people’s daily lives, it has been destroying the local ecology and could contribute to global warming.
“Logging in Prey Lang alone has affected thousands of families already, including the ethnic minority members who collect resin to sell everyday for food. Now tens of thousands of resin trees have already been cut down,” he said.
“If this can happen in Prey Lang, what about places like the Cardamom Mountains?”
Executive Director of the NGO Forum in Cambodia Chhit Sam Art told RFA that despite Cambodia’s rich forestry and natural resources, the country remains one of the poorest in the region with 30 percent of Cambodians living under the poverty line.
Some 90 percent of Cambodians live in rural areas and depend strongly on the water, land and forest resources, but he said the government has failed to preserve adequate land for its people, despite granting thousands of hectares in land concessions to private companies.
“As we have seen, the government provides more economic land concessions to the companies. The granting of social land concessions seem very slow and does not meet the needs of those living in poverty. We found that 20 percent of the poor do not have farmland,” he said.
In 2008, Global Witness found that Cambodian forest coverage had dropped to 35 percent from 59 percent in 1997. Forests covered 73 percent of the nation in 1969.
Reported by Sarada Taing for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.