Is the EU complicit in the destruction of Cambodia’s forests?

| 26th April 2018

Illegal logging in the Cardamom Mountains, Koh Kong Province, Cambodia



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The threat to our existence from the destruction of rainforests is well documented. And across the globe the battle to save them continues. JACK DAVIES reports on how the lush forests of Cambodia continue to suffer at the hands of the illegal timber trade

The European Commission is busy negotiating a free trade deal with Hanoi - the result of which would be a radical reduction in the due diligence obligations of European businesses when importing timber and wood products from Vietnam.

Satellite imagery of Cambodia has rapidly turned from a lush green to a patchwork of muddy browns and yellows in the last 40 years. Almost all of the country’s once impressive rainforests have fallen victim to illegal logging. 

While during the 1980s and early 1990s a large amount of wood left the country across the Thai border, in the 21st century the majority has fled east to Vietnam.

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With the European Union currently negotiating a free trade deal for timber with the Vietnamese government, the volume of Cambodian timber turning up in Vietnam is increasing.

Illegal export of timber

A 2007 report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) found that Cambodia’s primary rainforest cover was down to just 3.1 percent from more than 70 percent in 1970. The Cambodian government outlawed the export of timber – not for the first time – in January 2016, after years of calls to take meaningful action by domestic civil society actors and international donors.

The proscription has done little to abate the decimation of Cambodia’s forests, though, and Vietnamese customs data digested by NGO Forest Trends suggest the felled forests have left Cambodia in ever greater numbers in the years since the ban.

Vietnamese customs registered the import of 310,232 cubic metres of Cambodian timber in 2016. Last year’s figures, released earlier in 2018, showed a 40 percent year-on-year increase to 435,764 cubic metres. 

The combined value of the two years’ imports, according to the customs data, was $393.8 million. However, Phuc Xuan To, a senior analyst with Forest Trends, cautioned in emailed comments that “traders always undervalue [their wares] to avoid import tax”, implying that the true value of the looted timber is far and away in excess of the reported figure.

Due diligence at risk

The Cambodian government, which insists despite countless reports to the contrary that it has put an end to large-scale illegal logging, has repeatedly refused to acknowledge the Vietnamese data.

However, the data are irrefutable proof of what observers have been saying all along, that Cambodia’s forests are being stripped systematically and the product being hauled across the border with the complicity of the both countries’ governments.

Meanwhile, the European Commission is busy negotiating a free trade deal with Hanoi, the result of which would be a radical reduction in the due diligence obligations of European businesses when importing timber and wood products from Vietnam.

Under present EU timber regulations, importers are required to establish that all timber and wood products they bring into the common market was legally sourced.

The European Commission is busy negotiating a free trade deal with Hanoi - the result of which would be a radical reduction in the due diligence obligations of European businesses when importing timber and wood products from Vietnam.

However, under the new deal – known as a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) under the EU’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) facility – all due diligence responsibilities would rest with a Vietnamese government agency. The same government that for the last two years has been happy to accept hundreds of billions of dollars of unequivocally illegally sourced timber from Cambodia.

Sourcing standards

Last May, Vietnam and the European Commission initialled a draft text of the VPA that was nearly seven years in the making.

Those talks began in November 2010, but were severely roadblocked by Hanoi’s refusal to concede that it must ensure timber it imports was legally sourced in its country of origin, according to UK NGO the Environmental Investigation Agency’s (EIA) ‘Repeat Offender’ report, published the same month the VPA was initialled.

The purpose of FLEGT VPAs is to improve sourcing standards in countries exporting timber to the EU. The hope would be that by signing up Vietnam, Hanoi would be forced to crack down on illegally sourced timber in its own backyard.

However, many observers are sceptical and all caution that any meaningful progress will take time. Jago Wadley, EIA senior campaigner said: “Effectively these agreements take a long time to agree and implement on the ground. There’s a lot of politics and economics around triggering the actual mechanism.

“We’ve reviewed the text and we’re vaguely happy because Vietnam has committed to develop new legislation requiring importers to do due diligence as well as the competent authorities, such as customs and forestry.”

Stolen produce

Marcus Hardtke has been monitoring the Cambodian timber industry for more than two decades. He is less optimistic.

“Practically I don’t see how Vietnam can control the influx of illegal timber from Cambodia. They would have to do a real effort and they have to go against their own agencies at many levels, they have to address the border military – who were directly involved on both sides of the border in the massive illegal timber trade,” he said.

He also questioned the wisdom of viewing the issue as something to be tackled through treaties.

“It has to be treated as a crime and not as a technical issue,” Hardtke said. “It doesn’t matter that it’s trees, it’s stolen produce taken out of the country. It’s a Vietnamese agency aiding and abetting the theft of state property from another country.”

Corruption and collusion

Cambodian environmental activist Ouch Leng won the Goldman Prize for his work in 2016. In emailed remarks he went further than his international colleagues, suggesting a direct link between Vietnam’s progress in the VPA negotiations and “more timber smuggling across the border.

“The corruption and collusion by governmental officials and border authorities and the need of timber from Vietnam supplied to EU's market, this is the main cause of increasing of illegal logging,” he wrote. The Government of Cambodia has no real commitment to protect the forest rather than protect and stay behind timber trade.”

This Author

Jack Davies is a freelance journalist.

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