by Roseanne Gerin / Radio Free Asia
China’s voracious demand for luxury furniture is driving a multimillion-dollar illegal trade in rosewood in Cambodia, supported by a tycoon who controls an illegal logging network that exports the timber, according to a report by an environmental advocacy group.
Cambodian tycoon Okhna Try Pheap, the kingpin of the company involved in the multimillion-dollar illegal logging network, operates with the complicity of government, military, police and customs officials in felling rare trees, transporting them across Cambodia, and loading them onto boats headed for Hong Kong, the London-based environmental watchdog Global Witness said in an investigative report.
“Buyers of lavish four-poster beds and vanity tables in China may be unwittingly lining the pockets of what can only be described as timber gangsters,” said Megan MacInnes, campaign manager for the land program at Global Witness, in a printed statement.
The group’s eight-month investigation that produced a report entitled “The Cost of Luxury: Cambodia’s Illegal Trade in Precious Wood with China” found that 85 percent of Cambodia’s timber exports are destined for China, where they are used to make expensive rosewood furniture.
Cambodia’s export of Siamese rosewood logs, which are used to make pricey reproduction Qing and Ming Dynasty furniture in China, rose 150 percent between 2013 and 2014, the report said.
Okhna Try Pheap’s firm, Try Pheap Group, transports around 900 cubic meters (31,800 cubic feet) of illegally logged wood, including rosewood, every day across the country and onto boats in the international port in Sihanoukville in southwestern Cambodia.
“Try Pheap and his network are destroying Cambodia’s last forests and robbing indigenous communities of their livelihoods,” she said. “Meanwhile the very officials in Cambodia who should be stopping them are conspiring to ensure that contraband wood enjoys safe passage, and is exported as seemingly legitimate lumber.”
Global Witness said it obtained copies of shipping documents for timber valued at U.S. $5.6 million, for two lots of wood exported by Try Pheap Group to Kin Chung Transportation Company in Hong Kong.
The nongovernmental organization said the transportation firm has a capital shareholding of only HK $2 (U.S. $0.25) and no public presence as a timber trading company.
Kin Chung Transportation’s directors said they had no knowledge of the Try Pheap Group, and no idea why their company had been associated with such imports, Global Witness said.
Sao Sopheap, Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment spokesman, said he had not seen any report alleging corruption involving Okhna Try Pheap’s company in logging, according to Global Witness.
“I never seen a report by Global Witness,” he is quoted as saying by the group. “I don’t know where the NGO got the information from. I don’t know about their work.”
When asked if he was familiar with Okhna Try Pheap’s logging business, he said, “We didn’t focus on any individual. The Ministry of Environment and authorities are working nondiscriminator(ily) to prevent and preserve our natural resources.”
Okhna Try Pheap, who was previously a personal advisor to Prime Minister Hun Sen, has land concessions totalling nearly 30,000 hectares (74,100 acres), or about a quarter of the size of Hong Kong’s territory, the Global Witness report said.
Interviews with government and industry insiders, including people who work for Okhna Try Pheap, indicated that entrenched corruption had ensured loggers in his network were given safe passage and immunity from timber confiscations and penalties, the report said.
Try Pheap Group has been granted exclusive rights to purchase timber seized by enforcement agencies and export and sell it at a profit, Global Witness said.
It also said Hom Hoy, a two-star general with the Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, was allegedly one of Okhna Try Pheap’s middlemen—an indication of his company’s close connections with Cambodia’s military.
Neither Okhna Try Pheap nor General Hom Hoy replied to requests from Global Witness, asking them to comment on the evidence the group found and included in its report.
The report also cited numerous, but unnamed, inside sources who detailed Okhna Try Pheap’s close relationships with Ministry of Environment and Forestry Administration officials.
“The Try Pheap Group’s raids on Cambodia’s last forests are tantamount to daylight robbery,” MacInnes said. “The company is routinely and brazenly flouting laws aimed at protecting Cambodians and the ecosystems they rely on.
“This is yet another example from Cambodia of political power and business interests trumping citizens’ rights, and the wholesale capture of the country’s natural resources by its corrupt ruling elite.”
MacInnes said Cambodia “must tackle illegal logging and better protect endangered trees and the rights of forest dependent communities.”
Global Witness went on to say that Try Pheap Group’s use of economic land concessions to gut forests were illegal because such concessions only applied to agricultural lands, not forests.
The group also pointed out that the company’s concessions are larger than the maximum size limit and it had not conducted the required community consultations.
The group did note, however that in 2014 the Cambodia government took back from the company nearly 20,000 hectares (49,400 acres) of land concessions inside Virachey National Park in northeastern Cambodia, which is home to indigenous peoples and endangered plant and animal species.
MacInnes also called on the Cambodian government to take immediate action to investigate evidence that Okhna Try Pheap and his minions are involved in illegal activities.
She called on authorities in Hong Kong and mainland China to suspend the import of all rare rosewood tree species from Cambodia and introduce legislation prohibiting the import, trade and processing of illegally harvested timber and products derived from the wood.
Wood harvesting banned
The Cambodian government banned the harvesting and export of Siamese rosewood, known as Hongmu, in 2013, the report said.
The wood is also protected from unsustainable and illegal trade under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora since March 2013.
Siamese rosewood, found in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, is one of the most valuable and threatened of the 33 official Hongmu species.
According to a May 2014 article in the environmental affairs magazine The Ecologist, the Chinese government’s support for the industry combined with a growing trend of investing in Hongmu, has outstripped the domestic supply of rosewood and made the country heavily dependent on imports.
Between 2000-2013, China imported a total of 3.5 million cubic meters (123.6 million cubic feet) of rosewood timber, almost half of it, or U.S. $2.4 billion worth, from the Mekong region, including Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar, the article said.
A report by the London-based green group the Environmental Investigation Agency in May 2014 found that growing Chinese demand for rosewood timber was threatening the species with extinction in the Mekong region.