Conservation news

Cambodia accuses Vietnam of complicity in illegal cross-border logging

Illegal rosewood stockpiles. Photo by anonymous, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

  • Cambodia has accused neighboring Vietnam of systemically accepting fraudulent permits for rare, illegally trafficked rosewood timber.
  • Siamese rosewood (Dalbergia Conchinchinensis) is one of the most valuable species of tree in the world and has been destructively logged in Cambodia.
  • Items made from rosewood have been known to sell for millions of dollars in markets like China.

HANOI — Cambodia has asked Interpol to investigate Vietnam after accusing its neighbor of knowingly accepting fraudulent permits for rare, illegally logged rosewood timber for transport across their shared border.

Siamese rosewood (Dalbergia cochinchinensis) is one of the most valuable species of tree in the world to timber criminals. A single cubic meter can sell for as much as $5,000 in Cambodia, although that amount goes up significantly once it’s smuggled into Vietnam or China. The potential illegal profits are tantalizing: a single, ornately carved bedpost has been known to sell for as much as $1 million in Shanghai.

Even after Cambodia banned logging of the rare and protected tree in 2013, stocks of the species have been devastated across the border with Vietnam by an insatiable industry.

In 2017, Cambodia submitted letters to the U.N.’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which reveal how government officials requested Vietnam take action against the logging.

Ty Sokhun, head of Cambodia’s CITES Management Authority, said in a letter to the U.N.’s International Environment House in October 2017 that Vietnam “continued to allow the entry into the country of rosewood, repeatedly referencing CITES permits, notwithstanding that they had been previously informed on several occasions of the illegality of those permits.”

Jago Wadley, senior forests campaigner with the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), said that although there were likely to have been errors on both sides, Vietnam appeared to be at fault on this occasion.

“Ultimately a state party to a U.N. convention has testified to the effect that Vietnam knew that fake permits were being used and ignored that information and continued accepting those fake permits,” he told Voice of America in an interview. “If the Vietnamese management authority has accepted those permits in lieu of information that the permits were fake, then it has done something wrong under the convention and needs to be held accountable.”

Piles of rosewood litter the ground in Đồng Kỳ, Vietnam late last year. Photo by Michael Tatarski for Mongabay.

This is also not the first time such an accusation has been levied against Vietnam. An in-depth report by the EIA in May 2017 revealed that Vietnamese officials, companies and private individuals had smuggled enormous amounts of illegally logged timber from protected areas of Cambodia into Vietnam.

In response to Cambodia’s claims, Ha Thi Tuyet Nga, director of Vietnam’s CITES Management Authority, wrote a letter to the EIA that questioned the organization’s intention in “publishing one-sided reports that undermine Vietnam’s efforts in combatting transnational timber trade crimes in Viet Nam and Cambodia.”

The letter does not, however, deny the claims made against Vietnam, but rather states that Cambodia had failed to notify Vietnam about it ban on timber exports until March 2017.

Nga also noted her frustration that the claims against Vietnam came at a sensitive time — just before the signing of a Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) agreement between Vietnam and the European Union. On paper, the agreement would ensure that all timber exported to the EU from Vietnam has legal, verifiable origins, a move that has caused some to worry about the effect on illegal logging and natural habitats.

“Rosewood species are an integral part of the Southeast Asia Forest Ecosystem,” Thibault Ledecq, regional forest coordinator for the WWF, said in an interview. “Curbing illegal logging is critical to not only protect this precious species but also the integrity of protected areas where they are found.”

Ledecq said illegal logging was “destroying homes for endangered wildlife, livelihoods for communities that are managing their resources sustainably, and a critical defense in the fight against climate change.”

Siamese rosewood has been almost entirely removed from certain border areas following trading under fake CITES permits, according to experts. The EIA’s Wadley said the problem was so severe that two protected areas, including Cambodia’s Snoul Wildlife Sanctuary, were dissolved earlier this year by royal decree after being almost entirely stripped of forest.

The rare wood is laundered through a quota system in Vietnam, which ultimately gives it lawful status. The entire trade is worth at least $75 million and estimated kickbacks add up to as much as $13 million.