The Council of Ministers has ordered a temporary suspension to permits for clearing and transporting timber from the reservoir area of the Lower Sesan II Dam until after the upcoming elections in July, with a government official yesterday saying illegal logging was “out of control”, though observers questioned the timing and usefulness of the ban.
The directive was issued on Tuesday after a request from the Ministry of Environment on February 21. The move follows a similar measure announced on Monday to revoke licences granted to private companies, including Duong Sruoch Group, to log and collect timber from social land concessions and state-owned land, following years of allegations that companies were abusing their licences by carrying out illegal logging.
There have been repeated accusations that Ang & Associates Lawyer Co Ltd – a subsidiary of the Royal Group chaired by powerful tycoon Kith Meng – has logged outside its concession area since 2013, when it struck a deal to clear the 36,000-hectare area in preparation for the $800 million dam project.
“The government decided as the following: temporarily suspend the issuance of permit letters for hauling the forest benefits from the reservoir area of the Lower Sesan II Dam and the clearing at the economic land concession project until after the national election,” the letter reads. “Please take action immediately.”
The directive also orders Environment Minister Say Sam Al to implement the measure. Sam Al declined to comment and ministry spokesman Sao Sopheap couldn’t be reached.
Ministry cabinet director Srun Darith claimed to be unaware of the request, saying Sam Al may have sent it directly to Hun Sen.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the measure only concerned the Lower Sesan II Dam area because the government had learned that “so much” wood there had been logged.
He added that timber was being logged outside the permitted area, then brought into the boundaries to effectively launder it, Siphan said.
“It’s still out of control,” he said, adding this directive was “to make sure how to control illegal logging”.
“I feel that a number of people cut from outside the basin and put it inside the basin to legalise it,” he continued.
Siphan said the reason the measure was temporary and only until after the national election was because of limited accessibility to the area, with the government now too busy preparing for the July ballot. The issue could wait to be solved by the new government, “under the leadership of Hun Sen”.
“A new government could take care of this to study [and] manage illegal logging,” he said, adding that there could be new ministers appointed.
Chhay Meng, in charge of administration for the hydropower project, said he couldn’t comment on the matter as the clearing of the reservoir was under the management of Ang & Associates.
Royal Group’s Kith Meng declined to comment.
Hou Sam Ol, provincial coordinator for Adhoc in Stung Treng, said the action by the government came too late, and didn’t guarantee illegal logging in the area would come to an end.
Sam Ol said he would like to see a permanent ban because after the suspension is lifted, he suspected that logging of forestland in Siem Pang district and in the border between Stung Treng and Ratanakkiri provinces would continue.
“The timber in the reservoir area is gone,” he said. “[There’s] no timber to be cleared anymore as the water [has] filled the 36,000 hectares already. Therefore, clearing the reservoir is just an excuse. Sometimes the timber is logged from outside and hauled into the reservoir area.”
He added that Hun Sen would have known that the reservoir area was flooded after visiting the site in late September when the dam went online, making it only possible to haul out timber if it had already been brought in via boat. “It has been many months, nearly a year that the timber is being hauled” from outside, he added.
San Chey, executive director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, said the directive was likely motivated by a “political matter” – to get support from the public before the national elections – rather than just a move to protect natural resources in the area.
Additional reporting by Yesenia Amaro