Corrupt officials in Vietnam and Cambodia ‘in the pay of timber smugglers’

Corrupt government officials and security force personnel in Vietnam and Cambodia are pocketing massive bribes from timber smugglers, according to a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA)¹.

According to the EIA, huge quantities of illegal timber are being smuggled from Cambodia to Vietnam.

Between November 2016 and March 2017, EIA investigations uncovered illegal logging on unprecedented scales in Community Protected Areas (CPAs) in Virachey and Ou Ya Dev national parks, and in the Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province.

The EIA says all commercial tree species are being targeted.

“All of the wood is being smuggled with impunity to Vietnam as logs – in violation of both Cambodia’s log export ban and a total closure of the border with Vietnam to timber, instituted in early 2016 by a Coalition Committee for Forest Crime Prevention,” states the report, entitled “Repeat Offender: Vietnam’s persistent trade in illegal timber”.

“Much of the smuggled wood was logged illegally in protected areas funded by the European Union.”

The devastation of Ratanakiri’s protected areas is enabled by corrupt Cambodian officials and security force personnel in the pay of Vietnamese timber traders, the EIA says.

“Rather than rejecting this illegal wood, Vietnamese state and security officials have issued and administered formal quotas to give it lawful status in Vietnam’s economy.

“These quotas have incentivised and facilitated massive illegal logging in neighbouring Cambodia, precisely at a time when that country is publicly seeking to stop all timber trade with Vietnam.”

Logging in Virachey National Park, Cambodia, February 2017. Photo courtesy of the EIA.

Cambodia has had a complete ban on exports of logs and rough timber since 1996 and imposed a logging ban within the Permanent Forest Estate in 2002. It placed an embargo on all timber exports to Vietnam in January 2016.

During undercover meetings in Vietnam in February 2017 with companies benefiting from import quotas, EIA investigators learned how Vietnamese traders pay millions of dollars in bribes to Cambodian officials to open up logging areas and smuggling routes in Cambodia.

The EIA says that, between December 2016 and February 2017, about 300,000m3 of timber was stolen and smuggled out of Cambodia into Vietnam, nearly all as logs. The total trade was worth at least $75 million.

The timber was legitimised in Vietnam via import quotas and the kickbacks are estimated to have amounted to more than $13 million since the beginning of November 2016, the agency adds.

Traders told the EIA that they were asked to pay bribes of as much as $45 per cubic metre to Vietnamese officials, including customs and border army personnel, in return for the provision and administration of quotas allowing them to import into Vietnam.

“Not only are Vietnamese officials corruptly profiting, but so too is the Vietnamese state, formally taxing the illegal traffic of logs and so effectively taking a cut of the illegal businesses it has sanctioned,” the EIA said.

“The looting of Cambodia’s forests is merely the latest phase in Vietnam’s long and continuing history of wilful timber theft.”

Logs in Quy Nhon port, Vietnam. Photo courtesy of the EIA.

Until 2015, Laos was Vietnam’s biggest timber supplier and hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of logs flowed into Vietnam each year in violation of Laos’s log export ban.

That traffic only stopped in 2016, the EIA says, because Laos’s new Prime Minister, Thongloun Sisoulith, banned all raw timber exports.

Vietnam has made strenuous efforts to increase its own forest cover, and, in 2016, a total ban on logging natural forests was announced. However, at the same time, the Vietnamese government has promoted the rapid expansion of its export-oriented wood processing sector, which has become the sixth largest in the world.

“Vietnam continues to rely on imports of illicit timber to supply its burgeoning wood processing sector, especially from the neighbouring countries of Laos and Cambodia,” the EIA said.

“Since 2007, the EIA has repeatedly documented flows of illegal logs across the land border between Laos and Vietnam, and more recently from Cambodia.”

Vietnam’s exports of wood products are predicted to be worth $8 billion in 2017, as compared with $7.3 billion in 2016.

Cambodians who oppose the illegal loggers put their lives on the line. The country’s well-known environmental defender and forest crime investigator Chut Wutty (pictured below) was shot dead in 2012. Six months later journalist Hang Sorei Oudom, who wrote extensively about the elite’s links to illegal forestry, was found dead in the boot of his car.

On May 11, the European Union and Vietnam concluded their negotiations on a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) on Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT).

The agreement is aimed at helping to improve forest governance, address illegal logging, and promote trade in verified legal timber products from Vietnam to the EU and other markets.

Before the accord can enter into force, each party will have to complete signature and ratification procedures.

To implement the VPA, Vietnam will develop a timber legality assurance system to ensure that its exports of timber and timber products come from legal sources.

This would include procedures to verify that imported timber has been legally harvested and traded in accordance with the relevant legislation in the country of harvest.

Once the VPA is fully implemented, Vietnam’s shipments of timber and timber products to the EU will have to be accompanied by a FLEGT licence, demonstrating their legality.

The EIA says there is a fundamental failing in the VPA.

“It does not oblige Vietnam to issue legislation explicitly prohibiting the import and trade of timber illegally harvested, traded, transported or exported from the country of harvest or intermediary counties.

“Vietnam has a history of taking stolen timber from the neighbouring countries of Laos and Cambodia. It is vital that the opportunity afforded by the VPA to fundamentally reform Vietnam’s wood import procedures to exclude illegal timber is not squandered and that the VPA does not legitimise the criminal activities of powerful elements of the Vietnamese state and timber trade.”

Logs on the way to the Khla Thom depot in Vietnam.  Photo taken in Cambodia in February 2017. (Copyright EIA.)

The EIA is urging the Cambodian government to investigate the illegal timber exports by Cambodian companies named in its report “and seek information from Vietnamese Customs about the volume of timber exported and the names of Cambodian companies involved during 2016 and 2017”.

It wants the Vietnamese government to revoke immediately all quotas that enable the importation of “scattered timbers” along the Cambodia-Vietnam border, in all provinces, and particularly in Gia Lai.

It should also declare the timber imports to Cambodia, provide information about the wood exporters, and offer to repatriate illegal wood, the EIA says.

The agency says it should also investigate the reports of significant bribes to Gia Lai provincial government officials and security force personnel as described in the EIA report and not seek to implement FLEGT licensing until the following reforms have taken place:

  • a ban on importing illegal timber into Vietnam and trading in timber that was illegally logged or traded abroad;
  • a requirement that, for all timber shipments to Vietnam, there should be evidence of legal export from the country of harvest; and
  • a requirement that timber importers conduct due diligence on compliance.

The EIA has also called on the EU to compel Italy to investigate transparently the two cases submitted by the EIA that involve Italian imports of wood products from Vietnam, and make public its subsequent actions.

It also wants the Vietnam Timber Legality Assurance system to be strengthened before the VPA is concluded or FLEGT licensing can begin and is urging the EU to work with Cambodia to investigate illegal logging and timber smuggling in CPAs that were established under EU grants to the Cambodian government.

The EIA’s senior forests campaigner, Jago Wadley, said: “Vietnamese state involvement in multi-million-dollar transnational organised timber crime simply cannot be accepted by the international community and absolutely must not be ignored by the EU.”

The EIA also wants the United Nations to work with Vietnam and Cambodia to ensure that both countries effectively implement relevant provisions of the UN Convention on Transnational Organised Crime and the UN Convention Against Corruption.

On May 16, the EIA  published documents to support its revelations about the illegal timber traffic from Ratanakiri province into Vietnam.

The documents include satellite images of major log depots in Vietnamese military-controlled territory on the border, customs and tax documents for specific shipments of thousands of cubic metres of prohibited logs, and the official Vietnamese government legal provisions and authorisations giving 16 companies quotas amounting to more than 230,000m3 of Cambodian timber.

There are also official Vietnamese customs records that detail Vietnam’s importation of about $300 million worth of wood and wood products from Cambodia since January 2016.

Logs at the Khla Thom depot in Vietnam, March 2017. (Copyright EIA.)

The EIA said it was encouraged to hear that, on May 14, Cambodia’s environment minister announced the launch of an intensive investigation into the timber smuggling underway in Ratanakiri.

Vietnam also plays a central role in the smuggling of precious woods, commonly known as rosewoods, from the Mekong region to China, the EIA says in its report, published this month.

“Trade in these precious timbers has boomed over the past decade to supply the Chinese market for traditional Hongmu furniture,” the agency said.

Rosewood logs stored in a warehouse in Dong Ha, Vietnam. Photo courtesy of the EIA.

1) The EIA is a UK- and Washington DC-based Non-Governmental Organisation that investigates and campaigns against a wide range of environmental crimes, including illegal wildlife trade, illegal logging, hazardous waste, and trade in climate- and ozone-altering chemicals.

The “Repeat Offender” report was produced by the EIA in the UK.

Headline photo: Clandestine crossing in Virachey National Park. Image courtesy of the EIA.