In Cambodia, China Fuels Deadly Illegal Logging Trade

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Samrang Pring/ Reuters

Cambodian environmentalist Chut Wutty at Botum Sakor National Park, in Cambodia, in 2012

On April 26, 2012, Cambodian environmentalist Chut Wutty was killed during an investigation into illegal logging in the country’s arcane Cardamom Mountains. A year on, his family is no closer to learning the truth of what happened that fateful day and why. And now, sadly, Chut Wutty’s cause — the protection of Cambodia’s pristine woodland — is under greater threat than ever. New concessions for plantations and development projects are devastating the nation’s protected forests. On Monday, Global Witness, an advocacy group for which Chut Wutty worked for many years, accused Vietnamese rubber firms allegedly backed by the World Bank and Germany’s Deutsche Bank of driving a land-grabbing crisis.

Chut Wutty, 48 when he died, had been on a collision course with Cambodia’s murky business elite for some time. He was shot during a confrontation with security personnel at a land concession for a 338-megawatt hydropower dam to be built by China Huadian Corp. (CHC), one of China’s largest energy companies. Chut Wutty suspected that the area was being used to launder precious rosewood — loggers would bring felled trees from nearby protected forests, which would then be fraudulently registered as originating from within the concession’s land. An argument broke out and shots were fired. The activist died at the scene after being hit in the stomach and leg. A military policeman was also killed. Security officials were apparently responding to a complaint from CHC that Chut Wutty was taking photographs on private land without permission.

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Investigating officers decided that the second slain man, military policeman In Rattana, 32, shot Chut Wutty before being killed himself. A third man, Ran Boroth, was convicted of killing In Rattana while attempting to disarm him. Ran Boroth was a 27-year-old security guard for Timbergreen, a Cambodia-registered, Chinese-backed firm responsible for clearing the dam site. Ran Boroth was released without explanation after serving six months of his two-year prison sentence for unintentional homicide. Timbergreen acknowledged to the Phnom Penh Post that it holds the contract to clear the land but will not comment further.

Olesia Plokhii was one of two journalists accompanying Chut Wutty at the time of his death while on an assignment for the Cambodia Daily, but did not witness the manner of his shooting firsthand. A Canadian national, she describes the case as “heartbreaking” but maintains that such travesties are unsurprising considering the rampant corruption that blights Cambodia. Chut Wutty “would be the first person to envisage that there would be no justice for him,” she told TIME. “He was very cognizant of the dangers riding against him. He saw that he might have to go soon.” The stakes in this conflict are high. Richly hued, brownish red Siamese rosewood fetches around $5,000 per cu m in Phnom Penh and up to $50,000 in China, making the potential profits tantalizing for poverty-stricken Khmers.

Chut Wutty was a particularly effective activist owing to his military background — he was formerly a soldier — and extensive network of contacts. He encouraged rural communities to search out illegal timber stores near their homes and burn them — hitting the pockets of the criminal loggers. “Burning [timber] remains the most effective tool available to local people,” says Chut Wutty’s nephew, Chuon Phirom, himself an environmental activist for U.K.-based Flora & Fauna International.

Cambodia’s deforestation is the world’s third highest, after Nigeria and Vietnam, according to the latest figures from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. China is the biggest importer of timber, and the destination for much of Cambodia’s beleaguered woodland. Total Chinese log imports surged from 13.6 million cu m valued at $1.6 billion in 2000 to 42 million cu m worth $8.2 billion by 2011. China imported about 30% of all logs traded worldwide in 2011, with around half of that illegally sourced, according to a report published in November by the London-based NGO Environmental Investigation Agency.

There was once significant progress to thwart Cambodia’s illegal logging trade. The international community put pressure on the Cambodian government amid a crisis situation 10 years ago: nearly 3 million hectares — an area the size of Maryland— was lost between 1990 and 2010, according to the U.N. The IMF and World Bank placed conditions on financial assistance, and logging returned to “oxcart levels,” according to Marcus Hardtke, a German environmentalist who worked alongside Chut Wutty for many years. “No other country in the region [except Cambodia] managed to enforce a complete [illegal-]logging ban,” says Hardtke.

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Since 2010 the situation has deteriorated drastically. While strong regulations remain for selective logging in protected forests, concessions for rubber plantations and development projects allow for the clear-cutting of large swaths. In March, Thailand finally listed Siamese rosewood under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)’s Appendix II, which will monitor and control the export of the valuable lumber to other countries. Yet with so much illegal trade passing through Vietnam to China — and the vast majority of Cambodia’s top-grade rosewood already stripped out — critics argue that this is too little, too late.

As such, loggers have turned to new high-value targets like the resin trees that are part of the sustainable livelihoods for the indigenous Kuy tribe inhabiting Prey Lang forest, around 200 km north of Phnom Penh. Seng Sokheng, spokesperson for the Prey Lang Community Network, says that the logging leads to soil erosion and the loss of natural fertilizer that has traditionally aided the subsistence farming of vegetables, mushrooms and honey. “The Kuy people’s culture and tradition are being eroded day by day,” says Seng Sokheng.

Prey Lang is the last remaining evergreen lowland forest in the whole of Indochina. Once around 70% of the continent was so covered, yet now only this patch, the size of Rhode Island, remains. Environmentalists estimate that about 40% of Prey Lang has been eroded since 2000, with the entire forest likely to disappear in five or six years if current trends continue. Andrew McDonald, a botanist with the University of Texas–Pan American, says Prey Lang is a unique mosaic comprising half a dozen woodland varieties. But now the area is under threat from concessions for economic migrants to grow cassava to the north, while rubber plantations creep in from the south. “When I go back now, we are surrounded by smoking stumps,” says McDonald. “It is alarming that we are losing ground as we are trying to save it.”

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen declared a moratorium on new land concessions last May, yet at least four new concessions have since been announced in protected areas. A government spokesman told local media that these were issued prior to the moratorium, but did not answer media enquires regarding how many more of these agreements were still pending. “Our patrols are constantly finding red signs on trees marking out where new concessions will be deep in [Prey Lang] forest,” says Seng Sokheng. Hun Sen said in March that 1.5 million hectares of land concessions — 80% for rubber plantations — had been granted to private companies, according to the Cambodia Herald.

Global Witness this week accused two of Vietnam’s biggest companies — Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) and the Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG) — of being responsible for major land grabs in Cambodia. Both companies are apparently financed by Deutsche Bank while the International Finance Corporation (IFC) — the private lending arm of the World Bank — reportedly invests in HAGL through intermediaries. Both VRG and HAGL have released statements denying any illegal activity. Similarly, Deutsche Bank and the IFC have both contested their level of involvement.

Tragically, fates similar to Chut Wutty’s are not uncommon in Cambodia. Just weeks after his murder, a 14-year-old girl was shot and killed by military police during a forced eviction. Four months later, Hang Serei Oudom, a journalist who exposed illegal logging and forest crimes, was found dead in the trunk of his car. An investigating judge said that the 44-year-old’s head had been caved in with a sharp tool, perhaps an ax or a machete. Activists gathered for the anniversary of Chut Wutty’s murder say that Cambodia’s dependence on foreign aid means that a moratorium on land concessions is possible if the international community again exerts pressure. That may be the only way left to protect Cambodia’s forests — and save lives too.

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