Groups laud timber crackdown in Cambodia

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As crackdown launched, gov’t grants economic land concessions to two businessmen linked to logging scandals

By Lauren Crothers

PHNOM PENH – A consortium of environmental NGOs on Tuesday lauded efforts by the Cambodian government to crack down on rampant illegal logging that has decimated large swathes of forest in the eastern part of the country, even though the task force is headed by an official linked with the illicit trade himself.

The statement coincided with a report in The Cambodia Daily which said that two powerful businessmen — one frequently accused of running an illegal logging enterprise and the other named at the centre of a new logging scandal — have been granted economic land concessions in a protected wildlife area.

The six groups, which include WWF Cambodia and the Wildlife Alliance, called last week’s decision by Prime Minister Hun Sen to establish a taskforce to combat the illegal logging and transport of wood to Vietnam a “positive action to protect the country’s forests,” but urged the government “to further investigate and bring people and other relevant officials involved to the court.”

“The forest habitats found within Cambodia are therefore extremely valuable for conservation and sustainable development of the country. Their full protection should be a long-term high priority of the Cambodian Government,” the statement said.

But the task force is headed by the country’s National Military Police commander, General Sao Sokha.

As far back as 2004, forestry watchdog NGO Global Witness has accused him of being a powerful broker in the illegal logging trade — something Sokha has vehemently denied.

In its report on Tuesday, the Daily said businessmen Try Pheap and Lim Bunna had also been granted ELCs in the Phnom Penh Wildlife Sanctuary, even though accusations of illegal logging have swirled around Pheap for years.

Last week, one of Bunna’s timber warehouses was raided in a search for illegally logged wood.

Still, the environmental groups said the new task force “sends the right message to illegal loggers,” particularly after the murders of two government forest rangers late last year.

Last week, new footage of a herd of rare elephants in the west of the country was released, along with a warning that their habitat is still under threat from illegal loggers.

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