In a May 8 report, entitled "Repeat Offender: Vietnam's persistent trade in illegal timber," the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) said around 300,000 cubic meters of timber--including endangered rosewood--had been smuggled out of protected areas to Vietnam with the help of local authorities through some U.S. $13 million in bribes between November last year and March 2017.
The EIA separately published 2016-2017 sales invoices from Cambodian companies and Vietnamese import data on Tuesday showing the total import value of Cambodian timber to Vietnam amounted to around U.S. $300 million since January 2016, despite Cambodia's implementation of a ban on the trade that month.
At the time the May 8 report was published, Cambodia's Ministry of National Defense rejected its findings outright, while the Ministry of Environment--which is responsible for forest conservation--acknowledged that illegal deforestation is occurring in the country and pledged to investigate the EIA's claims.
On Thursday, just ten days after the release of the report, Ministry of Environment spokesperson Sao Sopheap dismissed its findings that Cambodian officials are often complicit in deforestation and smuggling, saying the EIA failed to recognize the country's efforts to combat the problems.
"It does not reflect [the reality] of the fact that we have been working to crack down on and prevent such offenses," he said at a press briefing in the capital Phnom Penh.
"We also don't allow any largescale destruction, as mentioned [in the report]. That is why I said it does not reflect what we have made efforts on and practiced in reality."
Sao Sopheap did not specifically address the EIA's findings with regard to illicit cross-border trade volume other than to suggest that the scale was not as serious as reported, although he acknowledged that his statement was not based on a ministry investigation of the allegations.
"I did not base this conclusion on any kind of verification," he said.
The ministry will need additional time to thoroughly study the EIA's report, he added, without providing a timeframe for its investigation.
Sao Sopheap referred questions about what kind of data the Ministry of Environment is using to verify the EIA's findings to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries deputy director Keo Oum Malis said that his ministry had only issued licenses to Cambodian companies exporting furniture to China through Vietnam since the ban on timber exports to Vietnam went into effect last year, but never for trading unprocessed logs.
"We don't issue licenses ... because during the 2016 campaign, the government prohibited any export of whole timber [to Vietnam]," he said.
"The campaign suppressed [the smuggling of] more than 60,000 cubic meters of timber."
The government's response to the EIA report came days after Cambodia's National Police issued a report accusing a company owned by business magnate Kith Meng of using its license to clear land for a reservoir for the Lower Sesan 2 hydropower dam as a cover to launder illegally logged timber before selling it across the border in Vietnam.
On Thursday, EIA senior campaign official Jago Wadley told RFA's Khmer Service that by issuing its report and other documentation his organization intended to warn the Cambodian government of the scale of the logging problem and assist in investigating and addressing it.
"These documents will help Cambodian authorities enforce the law against forest destruction and timber smuggling in Cambodia, which has resulted in the country losing several million US dollars," he said, referring to the data the EIA released on Tuesday.
Wadley urged Cambodia's authorities to act against all individuals, "regardless of rank," who are involved in illegal trade by fining or jailing them, in accordance with the country's existing laws.
Ouch Leng, chairman of the Cambodia Human Rights Task Force, also weighed in on the EIA report Thursday, telling RFA that those who purchase timber from Vietnam--including European Union (EU) member nations--should source their wood elsewhere in order to end deforestation in Cambodia.
When asked about its view of the EIA findings, the Brussels-based European Commission (EC)--which proposes and implements EU policy--said in a statement that it took the report "very seriously" and had called on both Cambodia and Vietnam to look into the allegations of illegal timber smuggling.
"We expect the authorities of Cambodia and Vietnam to urgently investigate the reported illegal activities and take firm action against individuals and companies found to be involved in illegal logging and related trade, as well as to take steps to prevent any such activity in future," the statement said.
"Reports such as the one recently published by EIA also provide useful information with respect to the implementation of the EU Timber Regulation, which prohibits placement of illegally-harvested timber on the EU market and obliges EU operators to exercise due diligence to ensure the legality of their supply chain."
The EC said the EIA report also demonstrated the importance of a May 11 agreement between the EU and Vietnam on Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade, which it said aims to strengthen cooperation in combatting illegal logging, improving forest governance and promoting trade in legally produced timber.
It noted that the EU had stopped funding a community protected area in northeast Cambodia's Virachey National Park--one of the protected areas mentioned in the EIA report--in 2015 amid allegations of illegal logging activities there.
Reported by Sel San for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
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