The Ministry of Environment is investigating collusion between state officials and timber traders in the country’s east, Environment Minister Say Sam Al said yesterday, three days after a report exposed industrial-scale illegal logging backed by Vietnamese traders in Ratanakkiri province.
The minister’s comments came as the Vietnamese government also released a statement in response to evidence uncovered by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) that suggested Vietnamese and Cambodian officials received millions of dollars in bribes to facilitate the trade.
His admission marks the first time the ministry has acknowledged the systematic logging operation detailed in the EIA report, estimated to have stripped some 300,000 cubic metres of timber from protected areas, which are under Sam Al’s purview. The wood has allegedly been smuggled to Vietnam.
“We have opened an investigation about a year ago on this network, which has never been done before. For us it’s very significant,” Sam Al said, via WhatsApp messenger.
The environment minister declined to elaborate on the “internal investigation”, calling the matter “delicate”. He would only say the ministry was looking at “quite a few” officials from the “local administration”.
Vietnamese customs data show that almost 350,000 cubic metres of Cambodian timber crossed the border between November and March, despite a blanket ban on timber exports issued by the Kingdom’s government in January last year.
Authorities in Vietnam’s Gia Lai province issued permits for Vietnamese companies to import the wood. EIA said this amounted to laundering illegally felled timber.
In a statement via email yesterday, however, Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ press and information department denied any state involvement in the illegal timber trade.
“Vietnam law strictly prohibits smuggling, including illegal logging. All acts of smuggling, including illegal logging, shall be seriously dealt with in line with the rule of law in Vietnam,” it read.
“Vietnam and Cambodia regularly maintain close cooperation in stopping smuggling, including illegal logging. Vietnam always strictly observes relating international commitments”.