Environmental activists and civil society groups are calling for a transparent investigation into a shipment of roughly 200 tonnes of rare timber seized by Hong Kong authorities earlier this month believed to have come from Cambodia. The Ministry of Agriculture had earlier rejected the idea that the timber had been smuggled from Cambodia, but an official revealed this Friday that they had been investigating the case.
A joint statement released on Thursday and signed by 31 associations, unions, civil society organizations, environmental activists and international scientists called for the government-announced investigation to be thorough and transparent, and ensure that its findings would be shared with the public.
“[The] identification and prosecution of all parties involved in illegal timber exports and deforestation is necessary to put an end to rampant impunity for illegal logging,” the statement read.
The statement also asked the government to put an end to what they described as an ongoing campaign of harassment against local communities attempting to protect natural resources.
“Local communities’ independent patrols and awareness-raising activities are some of the few mechanisms proven to be effective at stopping illegal logging and preserving the forests,” it said.
On May 5, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Customs and Excise Department confiscated 211 tons of rare and endangered timber, valued at HK$ 1.1 million or USD 140,000. The confiscated logs were found by Hong Kong customs officials in seven containers after being dropped off at the Kwai Chung and Tsing Yi customs offices between April 29 and May 5, 2021. Officials noted that this is the largest seizure of suspected scheduled wood logs made by customs over the past five years.
Earlier this year, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime stated that between 2001-2018, Cambodia lost about 557,000 hectares of forest cover within protected areas. This is equivalent to about 11,7 percent of all protected areas, which environmental activists and civil society organizations have increasingly been restricted from patrolling by the government.
In a statement released on May 14, the Ministry of Agriculture denied having prepared any documents to export rare and endangered plants to Hong Kong or anywhere else, labeling this as an instance of illegal timber smuggling. The ministry also confirmed that it would investigate the case to determine who was responsible.
Ministry spokesman Srey Vuthy said that he could not give details of the ongoing investigation.
“Let the ministry work on that issue,” he said. “Please be silent because they are working on that case.”
Speaking to CamboJA on May 17, Hong Kong’s Customs and Excise Department also said they could not provide any further details.
San Mala, senior advocacy officer at the Cambodian Youth Network, said that the statement was intended to urge the government not to ignore the investigation and to find the people involved in smuggling timber out of Cambodia.
“I think that if there was no collusion between [forestry administration] officials and Cambodian customs, 211 tons of timber could not be shipped out of Cambodia,” he said.
Mala added that authorities often failed to enforce laws against logging and timber smuggling, mainly due to corruption.
“We are very concerned [about losing forestry] because it has been reflected in reports from local and international organizations that have demonstrated that forestry crimes continue to happen in Cambodia,” he said.
Transparency International executive director Pech Pisey said that the public has lost trust in the authorities to prevent illegal logging in Cambodia.
“I don’t expect too much from the outcome of the case, but having the case investigated would already be a good example of law enforcement,” he said. “Cambodia’s reputation is at risk here if this case is not investigated, as it also involves a foreign territory and agencies.”
Pisey suggested that it would not be difficult to track down the chain of command for this timber smuggling, as well as those who were potentially involved in the case.
“We just need the officials in charge to be willing to take concrete actions,” he said.