A company owned by business magnate Kith Meng is using its license to clear a reservoir for the Lower Sesan 2 hydropower dam in Cambodia’s Stung Treng province as a cover to launder illegally logged timber, according to a report by the country’s police force.
Ang & Associates Lawyers, a subsidiary of Kith Meng’s Royal Group, has been logging timber from areas outside the 36,000-hectare (89,000-acre) area earmarked for the 400-megawatt dam’s reservoir and selling it to buyers across the border in Vietnam, said the report, posted to the website of the National Police on Tuesday.
Royal Group is constructing the dam in Stung Treng’s Sesan district along with Chinese partners and provided Ang & Associates with a contract to begin clearing the reservoir in 2012.
“Forest destruction activities in Sesan district and timber smuggling for sale in Vietnam is ongoing in the name of the company clearing the Lower Sesan 2 reservoir, owned by business tycoon Kith Meng, but the relevant authorities have ignored it and failed to prevent it,” the report said.
A ban on timber exports from Cambodia to Vietnam has been in effect since January 2016.
An Ang & Associates’ manager named Seng “colludes with and recruits” local residents to log outside the reservoir area, collects the timber, and “puts the logs at the bottom of the reservoir to make the illegal timber seem legal,” it added.
The report cited unnamed sources as saying that Kith Meng—an Australian citizen—had handed the logging operation over to another businessman, who in turn passed it on to two men named Tim Bunlin and San Choy. They are purchasing timber from area communes and laundering it in the reservoir, it said.
Local communities have expressed concerns over the loss of natural resources in the area and warned of an environmental crisis if the practice is not ended, according to the report, which makes no mention of whether authorities plan to investigate.
On Wednesday, villagers from Sre Kor commune told RFA’s Khmer Service that several groups of people have destroyed forest in Sesan district’s Phnom Krala Pos mountain area and a conservation area in Siem Pang district, using tractors and logging trucks to transport the timber to the Lower Sesan 2 reservoir.
A villager named Puth Khoeun said a logging trail was cut through the forest last year to transport the timber, some of which originates from an area in between the Sesan and Sre Pok rivers near the border with Laos, known as the Koh (Island) area.
“Smaller logging trucks transport during the daytime and larger ones for transporting both inside and outside of the country usually do so at 6:00 p.m. or later,” he said.
“This is a truly massive kind of destruction.”
According to Sre Kor commune chief Siek Mekong, the deforestation is being carried out “in various regions by various groups,” including residents and timber traders from elsewhere in the country.
He said that due to the vast size of the reservoir, it is impossible for commune authorities to know how much of the timber had been harvested from other areas and deposited there.
“Besides looking at the size of the reservoir area, we can’t truly know because we don’t have concrete data,” he said.
Ouch Leng, chairman of the Cambodia Human Rights Task Force, told RFA that logging activities outside the reservoir area have been occurring for “several years,” and called on relevant ministries to carry out a full investigation of the issue.
“Kith Meng has no knowledge of this—it’s his subordinates who seek timber from outside to store at the reservoir before supplying it to saw mills owned by the Vietnamese and Chinese,” he said, without providing details.
“They are the ones who order such timber and process it for export, the construction of homes, or sale at various depots throughout Cambodia.”
Responding to the allegations, Ang & Associates representative Um Reth denied that the company had transported timber for laundering, saying it had yet to finish clearing timber from the 36,000-hectare reservoir area.
He added that the harvested timber is used to supply the domestic market only after strict inspection by officials from the Stung Treng provincial Department of Agriculture or the Forestry Administration.
“Without such examination by expert officials, the timber could not be transported out of the reservoir,” he said.
“All timber loads must be accompanied by authorization letters … and expert officials conduct examinations and measurements prior to issuing any authorization letter for transport.”
Um Reth’s denial was echoed by Lean Seng, director of Stung Treng province’s Department of Agriculture, who the Cambodia Daily quoted as saying “it doesn’t happen … officials from the Agriculture Ministry have come to inspect.”
The Daily was also able to reach Kith Meng by telephone, but he told the paper he was in a meeting in Beijing and hung up.
Attempts by RFA to contact Ministry of Environment spokesperson Sao Sopheap about logging in Sesan district went unanswered Wednesday, though he has previously said the ministry is looking into the findings of a May 8 report by U.K.-based watchdog Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which documented timber smuggling from Cambodia to Vietnam.
In that report, entitled “Repeat Offender: Vietnam’s persistent trade in illegal timber,” the EIA said some 300,000 cubic meters of timber has been smuggled out of Cambodia and “legitimized in Vietnam … [through] kickbacks [that] are likely to have amounted to more than U.S. $13 million since the beginning of November 2016.”
“Not only are Vietnamese officials corruptly profiting, but so too is the Vietnamese state, formally taxing the illegal traffic of logs and so effectively taking a cut of the illegal businesses it has sanctioned,” the report said.
At the time the report was published, Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment acknowledged that illegal deforestation is occurring in the country and said it would investigate the EIA’s claims.
Reported by Chanthy Men for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.