“If they come to Cambodia, I will hit them until their heads are broken”.
These are the words attributed to the brother of the Cambodian Prime Minister after the international NGO Global Witness published “Cambodia Family tree” in June 2007. The tree exposed how relatives of the prime minister and other senior officials had run illegal logging operations with complete impunity over a number of years.
As an echo to this sentiment, journalist Ek Sokunthy, who was working for the small Khmer weekly Ta Prum, told the Phnom Penh Post on September 26, that he had been beaten on the head and body with a pistol and wooden stick in the north-eastern province of Ratanakiri, notorious for illegal logging activities. Ten days before this incident, Sokunthy took a picture of illegal logging activities in the forest after he was called by villagers who witnessed them. He was then threatened by a local “powerful” man and ordered not to publish anything about it. The article titled “Illegal logging traders still continue their activities in Angdong Meas” was eventually published in Ta Prum the week of September 18, stating the involvement of the district religion office and the former commune police chief.
Two weeks before, the journalist Heng Serei Oudom was found dead in the trunk of his car after he wrote a story and accused a local military police officer of extorting money from an illegal logger in the area. The local police took a military officer and his wife into custody the day after the murder, though both denied their involvement. Heng Serei Oudom brings the list of victims from reporting on environmental issues to 96 since 2002 in Southeast Asia.
Earlier this month, Patrick Alley, one of the three founding directors of Global Witness, told the international French radio network Radio France International that “since we started investigating, we know that illegal logging and high ranking officials have always been linked. When concessions were attributed to foreign firms, the exploitation of the forest has always been run by sub-contracted firms with connections to high-ranking officials or the military”.
That is how the Chinese-owned firm Timbergreen was licensed to clear the reservoir for the nearby dam project under construction by China National Heavy Machinery Corporation. It is also known to be protected by the military and to have a permit to process yellow vine. On October 4, one of their security employees will appear in the Koh Kong provincial court to face allegations that he shot a military police officer on April 26. He was apparently trying to disarm him after the military officer supposedly killed Chut Wutty, a well-known forest activist who had been exploring the area for three days with two reporters. On the unpaved road where he was killed, the activist wanted to show the journalists that even yellow medicinal wine was trafficked. Villagers also reported that Timbergreen is paying people to selectively log rosewood. In this region of Cambodia, which the US Embassy called “the Wild West”, wood is not the only product that will be sold: sand, wildlife, land… everything is subject to shady schemes.
Illegal logging in the region
During the civil war, cross-border trafficking with Thailand was bringing in 10 to 20 million dollars per month. Although the amount remains undisclosed, Thai officials are also turning a blind eye to Cambodians illegally entering Thai forests. In January 2012, the Thai department of special investigations (DSI) claimed that wildlife officials were “awarding Cambodians a concession to cut the trees” in a national park near the Cambodian border. It has become a growing concern to Phnom Penh and Bangkok as Thai soldiers have killed 38 Cambodian loggers in the first six months of 2012.
In a report published by Global Witness, 50 environmental activists were killed in the Philippines since 2002 and no investigation has been conducted on any of the cases. In this country, illegal logging directly contributes to magnifying damaging floods to the extent that the President ordered a nationwide crackdown in 2004 and stated that “Illegal logging must now be placed in the order of most serious crimes against our people” . And late 2011, when floods killed more than 1000 people in Southern Philippines, the point where the river joins the sea was blocked with logs. “I blame the loggers for this,” said a resident to the BBC. “If it was just water it would have flowed through and out to sea.” In the 1990s, the Philippines counted 5 million hectares of forests already denuded, and a deforestation rate of 119,000 hectares per year. Like in Cambodia, the Philippines has given concessions and issues permits to logging companies and reporting about it can be dangerous. In June, one journalist was threatened for his story on illegal logging by a businessman who had used an illegal certificate to transport wood.
According to the United Nations and Interpol, between 50% and 90% of logging activities in the Amazon basin, Central Africa and Southeast Asia are illegal and organized crime is now moving to illegal logging, bringing $30 to $100 billion annually worldwide.