Logging in Cambodia
A resurgence in illegal logging takes its toll
OF THE five dirt-poor farmers who set out from Chhoeu Slab village in November in search of rosewood, only four returned. The fifth is recuperating in a Thai hospital, having been shot by a Thai border patrol. The boom in trade of the rich-hued hardwood has already claimed 15 lives in 2011, and dozens more have been wounded by Thai soldiers. An unknown number have simply vanished. The shootings could yet become a source of tension between the Thai and Cambodian governments, whose relations have improved immeasurably since Yingluck Shinawatra became Thai prime minister in August.
Slung along the Thai-Cambodian border, the forests of the Dangrek mountains were once brimming with the luxury wood. But rosewood stocks have fallen precipitously in recent years as illegal logging has run rampant. For Cambodian loggers, that means having to push farther into Thailand’s territory—risking capture, injury or death.
The cause of the boom is simple: growing demand in Vietnam and, especially, China. To meet the demand, a complex network of loggers has sprung up, with the riskiest work carried out by the poorest. Some are country men plucked out by ringleaders promising large sums for sawn planks. Others are villagers solicited by local soldiers.
Timber is smuggled out of Cambodia in boats and trucks. For years the trade was overseen by top officials, tycoons and their families, until international attention and even the Cambodian prime minister’s displeasure put a clamp on things. Environmental groups say it is now led by Cambodia’s armed forces. A long-running Thai-Cambodian border dispute that flared up in early 2011 around the temple of Preah Vihear has been a boon for the trade: the army has free access to surrounding areas that others do not.
Inevitably, prices are rising with demand. On the international market, the best rosewood planks can sell for $50,000 a cubic metre. A rosewood wardrobe can fetch $20,000. And as the trade diverts wood abroad, prices within Cambodia have climbed too.