Tycoon Try Pheap has collected an estimated 1,500 cubic metres of timber from Forestry Administration offices since the government in July issued his companies permission to confiscate “waste wood” from their offices and from the Ministry of Environment, according to preliminary government figures obtained by the Post yesterday.
An unknown amount of wood held at facilities run by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the Ministry of Environment was given to Pheap’s MDS Import Export Company and MDS Thmodar SEZ Company in a letter from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s cabinet on July 24.
The decision followed a similar order in 2013, in which Pheap paid about $3.4 million for the right to collect nearly 5,000 cubic metres of luxury timber from the Forestry Administration.
“More than 1,500 cubic metres was confiscated so far since [the] order [was signed],” Forestry Administration director Chheng Kimsun said, adding that official figures had not yet been calculated.
Bun Uy, a secretary of state at the Council of Ministers, issued letters to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and Ministry of Environment in late July, saying that Pheap’s firms had to destroy some of the timber but were allowed to export whatever remained.
While the wood was classified as “waste wood” by the government in order to justify the handover, a significant portion of the timber held by the Forestry Administration is thought to be luxury-grade and held as evidence in criminal cases against illegal loggers.
Kimsun said that even after the official figures were collated, the amount confiscated by Pheap was likely to rise as more luxury wood was confiscated from loggers who travel across the Dangrek Mountains in northern Cambodia to illegally log in Thailand’s forested border regions.
Pheap rose to prominence as a logging baron as Cambodia switched in the early 2000s from a policy of directly issuing logging concessions to a “conversion” program in which economic land concessions were granted to Cambodian and foreign investors almost exclusively in or adjacent to heavily forested areas.
The concessions have come under heavy criticism ever since, amid allegations that they have routinely been used as a front for large-scale illegal timber extraction.
In a report released earlier this month, monitoring group Forest Trends estimated that as much as 90 per cent of timber exports from Cambodia are sourced illegally and the “main driver” is the agro-industrial conversion scheme.
In 2011, the government acknowledged in a report published by the Technical Working Group on Forestry that its own conversion policy had been the main cause of the dramatic decline in forest cover in recent years.
“The available evidence … demonstrates that most, if not all, of the deforestation taking place in Cambodia … is illegal in some way,” Forest Trends said in the report.