A Mongabay investigation has uncovered a logging operation being run out of Koh Kong provincial jail that will get its timber from the location of a brand new hydropower dam being in-built Thma Bang.Old-growth forest in Central Cardamom Mountains National Park is being cleared to make manner for the Stung Tatai Leu hydropower dam, however the environmental impacts stay opaque.NGOs and the Ministry of Environment present minimal oversight to forestall unlawful loggers from exploiting the challenge web site, and former loggers detailed how bribes facilitate the illicit timber commerce.Prison officers maintained that the timber is utilized in a abilities growth program, however former inmates alleged that officers have been exploiting jail labor to craft luxurious furnishings.
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network the place Gerald Flynn was a fellow.
*Names have been modified to guard sources who mentioned they feared reprisals from the authorities.
KOH KONG, Cambodia — In April 2022, the sound of a sawmill lower by way of the murky daybreak that was steaming over Cambodia’s western Koh Kong province. At round 5 a.m., the provincial jail was abuzz with exercise.
Huge unprocessed logs, some measuring nicely over a meter, or 3 toes, in diameter, have been being rolled concerning the dusty yard behind the jail by males in tattered garments. Other items of timber have been being fed into an industrial sawmill on the rear of the yard, whereas stacks of timber have been littered about in and outdoors the compound.
A dazed, sleep-deprived driver staggered out of the yard, squinting within the pale daylight and sporting nothing however a sarong. His activity had been to ship the 16-wheel crane truck holding one other 5 felled timber that stretched past the size of the blue-and-white truck’s flatbed by a number of meters. The license plate, 3A-0789, was scarcely seen beneath the protruding timber.
“I used to be requested to come back as a driver; they supplied me $300 per 30 days to drive these logs. I solely arrived right here final evening,” mentioned the person as he exited the jail yard. “It was my first evening on the job, however I don’t assume I’ll stick with it. It’s not good work.”
Through the open gate, reporters witnessed a flurry of motion within the depot behind the jail because the truck was unloaded in preparation for remodeling timber into timber and Koh Kong’s forests into income.
Scowling on the scene unfolding earlier than him, with folded arms and a clear white gown shirt, was a person later recognized as 46-year-old Yous Pros.
Upon realizing his operation was being noticed, Pros proceeded to chase Mongabay’s reporting workforce in his white four-by-four pickup truck, virtually operating one reporter off the highway. When requested about this incident hours later, Pros was unrepentant.
“Yes, I chased your photographer, these images are unlawful, you need to delete these images as a result of it’s unlawful to take images of the jail,” he mentioned. “If you publish these images, it will likely be troublesome to settle. If you publish internationally, it’s not factor for you.”
One 12 months later, a Mongabay investigation has revealed that Pros sits inside a logging community that siphons timber from throughout Koh Kong, though extra not too long ago he has taken it from forest cleared throughout development of a forthcoming hydropower dam. This is then transported by the truckload previous an NGO- and government-run checkpoint, earlier than it’s delivered to the Koh Kong provincial jail, the place inmates and contractors course of it.
From there, Pros, along side officers on the jail, promote the timber, generally as uncooked materials, different instances as completed furnishings, pocketing the income. The association is, in keeping with authorities and Koh Kong-based conservation NGO Wildlife Alliance, authorized and supported by each the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Interior’s jail division.
This comes simply after Meuk Saphannareth, deputy director of the prisons division, was uncovered as the pinnacle of a logging operation that has operated with impunity throughout northern Cambodia for many years.
Pros’s operation, whereas smaller in scale, is murkier and enabled by the comparatively restricted oversight utilized to the distant Cardamom mountains.
Workers have been seen rolling logs within the timber depot in the back of the Koh Kong Provincial jail in April 2022. The man within the white shirt is Yous Pros, who runs the depot’s operations. Image by Mongabay.
Trucking out complete timber
Pros’s newest supply of timber, the location of the 150-megawatt Stung Tatai Leu, or Upper Tatay, hydropower dam, was accepted by the Council of Ministers, the cupboard of Prime Minister Hun Sen, in October 2020. By December 2020, the implementation settlement between Cambodia’s Ministry of Mines and Energy was signed with China National Heavy Machinery Corporation because the dam’s developer.
The roughly $389 million dam broke floor in Koh Kong province’s Tatai Leu commune, Thma Bang district, in November 2021, threatening an space that, in keeping with Global Forest Watch information, had solely misplaced 7,590 hectares (18,755 acres) of main forest in 20 years since 2001. This loss constituted simply 2.1% of Thma Bang’s complete main forest, which made up as a lot as 98% of the district’s landmass in 2010.
Since development started on the Stung Tatai Leu, satellite tv for pc photographs have triggered almost 60,000 deforestation alerts for Thma Bang district, virtually all centered across the web site of the brand new dam. Satellite imagery captured in March reveals huge denuded areas carved from what was as soon as intact, protected forest.
Satellite imagery from Planet Labs Inc. reveals the progress of the Stung Tatai Leu hydropower dam (in yellow) and the clearing of forest for the reservoir (in blue), together with the facility traces (white dashed traces) that cross the boundary (in inexperienced) between the Central Cardamom Mountains National Park (north) and the Southern Cardamom National Park (south), whereas further forest has been cleared alongside the highway resulting in the dam, close to land that was beforehand reclassified for group use (in orange). Data sources: Open Development Cambodia, 2020 Environmental Impact Assessment for the Stung Tatai Leu hydropower dam. Image by Gerald Flynn/Mongabay
Cambodian Upper Tatay Hydropower, the domestically registered firm by way of which China National Heavy Machinery Corporation operates in Cambodia, didn’t reply to emailed enquiries concerning the growth of the dam, its environmental impacts or the danger of unlawful logging related to it.
“I see them transport the wooden on the again of a truck,” mentioned Sothy*, a mechanic chargeable for repairing the dam’s development tools. “It was a type of vans with a crane on the again, often they’ll match as much as 5 timber on the again.”
On a cold evening in January 2023, as wind whipped by way of the mountainous village, Sothy defined that whereas Chinese nationals run nearly all of the development operations, these extracting timber at and across the dam web site are Cambodian.
He mentioned that day-after-day, at round 4 or 5 p.m., a blue-and-white crane truck would depart the dam web site with a number of giant timber lined by a tarpaulin.
“They’re not taking all of the timber, solely the massive ones,” Sothy mentioned. When reporters confirmed him images of the truck seen exterior the jail in April 2022, he studied it, checked it together with his colleagues, with whom he shared a room, and all agreed this was the identical one they noticed leaving the dam every day loaded with uncooked logs.
“There are small tracks, coming off the roads resulting in the dam web site,” he mentioned, decreasing his voice. “This huge truck can’t get down these smaller tracks, so individuals drag the wooden out and go away it on the facet of the highway for the crane truck to gather and take away. I don’t know the place, however there are various tracks like this coming off the highway to the dam.”
“Please don’t inform anybody I advised you; I might be fired if the corporate discovered,” he added rapidly.
Suspicions that timber cleared to make manner for the brand new dam have been certain for the jail, and that it had resulted in unlawful logging past the dam’s boundaries, have been shared broadly amongst residents of Thma Bang.
“The timber which are lower down for the dam and for the highway have been taken all the way down to the provincial jail, it’s so the prisoners can learn to make furnishings,” mentioned Rith*, who had moved from neighboring Preah Sihanouk to seek out work on the dam earlier in 2022.
“If this place is open on the market, the Oknhas [Khmer word for tycoons] will come right here to purchase all the pieces, they’ll take all the pieces — the entire forest,” he mentioned.
Khun*, a banana farmer and Thma Bang resident whose home near the highway gave him a transparent view of the route the timber vans took, mentioned they transported within the night “in order that no person sees it.”
“The chief of the provincial jail buys the timber so the prisoners in Koh Kong city could make furnishings out of it,” Khun mentioned. “They attempt to hold it quiet as a result of the jail chief doesn’t need individuals to know he hires loggers.”
Taking the perfect, gutting the remaining
Early the next morning in January, a Mongabay reporting workforce was capable of entry the dam web site on motorbikes. All alongside the facet of the winding highway, which had been paved since reporters first visited the location some 9 months prior, piles of giant, freshly lower timber have been stacked intermittently, some partially hidden by foliage.
Small clearings spurred incessantly off the highway, main into the dense evergreen jungle from the place the timber had been lower down and dragged as much as the highway.
“Of course there are many them [logging routes], as a result of it’s the start,” Eduard Lefter, head of regulation enforcement at Wildlife Alliance, mentioned in a March 2023 interview. “Imagine what it’ll be after they begin to clear the reservoir correctly, however that seemingly might be a logging firm as a result of that’s huge cash.”
Building a dam creates a reservoir of water that floods the world instantly upstream. According to an Aug. 31, 2021, difficulty of the Royal Gazette, a authorities publication saying new legal guidelines and laws, the Stung Tatai Leu dam is predicted to “have an effect on” 1,706.36 hectares (4,217 acres) of forest. Of this space, 1,336 hectares (3,301 acres) are evergreen rainforest. It’s additionally anticipated to affect the habitats of 46 species of mammals, 112 species of birds, 49 species of amphibians, and 36 species of freshwater fish.
But the Stung Tatai Leu’s environmental affect evaluation (EIA) has by no means been made public. Both Cambodian Upper Tatay and Neth Pheaktra, spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment, which manages EIAs, refused to share the research or its findings.
This makes the precise boundaries of the dam, its reservoir and its supporting infrastructure troublesome to establish. However, one authorities worker posted images to Facebook from the discharge occasion of the Stung Tatai Leu feasibility research on July 22, 2020, and uploaded images of maps that reporters georeferenced, producing an unofficial hint of the dam’s reservoir and supporting infrastructure.
Satellite imagery reveals distinct discrepancies between Mongabay’s unofficial map of the dam and the place clearing has taken place, which Cambodian dam staff mentioned was the place loggers are looking for out probably the most useful timber, laundering it by way of the concession and claiming it was felled within the means of highway development.
Satellite imagery offered by Earthrise Media reveals what seems to be a small path lower by way of the forest, heading in direction of the route of the dam’s transmission traces (in white dashes) from the highway main into the Stung Tatai Leu hydropower dam. The satellite tv for pc imagery is from Feb. 17, 2023, whereas on Jan. 5, reporters documented timber left by the facet of the highway at this precise location. Image by Gerald Flynn/Mongabay, 2023 © Airbus DS / Earthrise.
Returning from the location of the dam, at round 9 a.m., reporters handed the blue-and-white crane truck — license plate 3A-0789 — heading to the dam web site. Those who have been engaged on the dam defined that it was coming to gather the timber that had been hidden alongside the facet of the highway.
“Because it’s newly lower wooden and the highway is paved already, it’s seemingly been lower off the facet of the highway, however I can’t say the place precisely,” one employee mentioned. “I feel somebody went off the highway and lower the wooden as a result of it’s an enormous tree.”
Locals who have been engaged on the dam in January 2023 recognized the tree species by its Khmer identify: Doung chem, or Tarrietia javanica, a uncommon, useful grade 1 hardwood that thrives in Thma Bang’s moist, mountainous panorama.
Often used within the development of luxurious furnishings and swiftlet homes, the species can fetch between $5,000 and $20,000 per cubic meter ($140 and $570 per cubic foot) domestically, in keeping with Cambodian forestry specialists. But they word that a lot of the doung chem bought on the higher finish of that scale is imported from Malaysia.
Satellite imagery from Feb. 17, 2023, offered by Earthrise Media reveals two factors (in white circles) alongside the highway close to the development web site for the dam’s supporting infrastructure (in yellow) the place reporters noticed logs stacked by the facet of the highway, suggesting that the highway development has given cowl to selective logging. Image by Gerald Flynn/Mongabay, 2023 © Airbus DS / Earthrise.
Later that day, at round 5 p.m. — exactly as the employees had recalled — the blue-and-white crane truck with the identical license plate because the one seen exterior the jail virtually a 12 months prior was noticed rising from the highway main out of the dam and again into Tatai Leu commune.
By this level the truck was laden with 4 or 5 giant spherical logs lined by a darkish blue tarpaulin that once more prolonged nicely past the truck’s rear, virtually obscuring the license plate solely. But the truck’s heavy load didn’t cease it from reaching speeds of 70 kilometers an hour (43 miles per hour) on the roughly 35-km (22-mi) red-dirt highway that leads out of Thma Bang and again towards the jail.
The solar had set by the point the truck reached the Veal Pi ranger station, staffed by each Wildlife Alliance and Ministry of Environment rangers, and the only checkpoint monitoring the circulation of automobiles coming from Thma Bang to Koh Kong city. Mongabay’s reporting workforce settled in out of sight, anticipating the rangers’ checks to take a while, however the truck barely rolled to a cease earlier than being waved by way of the checkpoint inside a number of moments of arriving.
From right here, the truck navigated the pothole-riddled National Road 48 expertly, dashing previous different bigger automobiles carrying development tools and slicing by way of the night gloom that was punctuated by the uncommon functioning streetlight.
Some 30 km (19 mi) later, approaching Koh Kong city, the truck turned left off National Road 48 towards the distant commune of Stung Veng, the place its remaining vacation spot was the Koh Kong provincial jail in Prek Svay village.
Reporters have been capable of observe Yous Pros’ truck after it had collected timber from inside the location of the Stung Tatai Leu hydropower dam in Thma Bang district, Koh Kong province to the Koh Kong provincial jail. The journey took the timber previous a Wildlife Alliance checkpoint, the place the truck stopped briefly, however was not checked. Image by Gerald Flynn/Mongabay.
A murky enterprise with restricted oversight
There seem like little to no checks or balances in place to forestall unlawful logging taking place on the web site of the dam the place timber are felled, or alongside the route they’re transported, or on the jail itself.
Wildlife Alliance and Ministry of Environment rangers stationed at Veal Pi confirmed that they’d not been checking the timber or counting the amount transported out of the dam since development started.
“When the vans come by, we don’t cease them,” one ranger mentioned, estimating that, in April 2022, as a lot as 200 m3 (7,000 ft3) of timber was being shipped out of the dam every week by Pros’s community. Satellite information from Global Forest Watch present tree cowl loss has skyrocketed within the 12 months since — from 116 deforestation alerts in April 2022 to greater than 6,000 in April 2023 — which suggests a equally steep rise within the quantity of timber being transported out of the world.
“As far we’re involved, we’re happier that it’s coming from the Chinese concession for the dam somewhat than individuals going into the forests to log by themselves,” the ranger mentioned, including that earlier hydropower initiatives within the Cardamoms “have been a multitude,” and the timber commerce “was loopy again then.”
But whereas no person was stopping or inspecting Pros’s vans en path to the jail, monitoring on the dam seems equally minimal. Lefter of the Wildlife Alliance famous that the Stung Tatai Leu hydropower challenge largely impacts Central Cardamom Mountains National Park. The park is a protected forest spanning some 400,000 hectares (988,000 acres) that’s collectively managed by the Ministry of Environment and Conservation International. It borders the equally sized Southern Cardamom Mountains National Park, the place the Wildlife Alliance works with the Ministry of Environment.
“We are conducting the patrols inside Central Cardamom Mountains National Park and we do that when it comes to good will and to reduce opportunistic logging and to keep away from individuals coming into the Southern Cardamoms as a result of to us, it’s a buffer zone for our nationwide park,” Lefter mentioned.
But these patrols occur, at most, as soon as a month, Lefter mentioned. Conservation International’s nation director for Cambodia, Oum Sony, didn’t reply to requests for remark.
An aerial view over the Central Cardamoms National Park, one among a number of protected areas that represent the Cardamom Mountains, an evergreen forest located on the Thai-Cambodia border. In November 2021, development started on the close by 150-megawatt Stung Tatai Leu hydropower dam. Image by Mongabay.
The relative dearth of on-the-ground intel might clarify why no person appeared to have a transparent reply when requested who was clearing the location for the dam’s reservoir, which extends throughout almost 1,100 hectares (2,700 acres) of old-growth forest.
Initially, Lefter instructed the Chinese builders have been but to place out a young for bidding on the rights to clear the reservoir web site, which means a logging firm might transfer into the world in the event that they win the bid.
But he additionally instructed that Cambodian Upper Tatay might choose to clear the location itself or depend on the government-run Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC), which had been demining the world within the early levels of the dam’s development.
In a 2022 interview, a CMAC worker mentioned they have been clearing small parts of forest, checking for landmines or unexploded ordnances onsite, however instructed different contractors had been introduced in to help with forest clearance for the highway and the reservoir.
The CMAC worker additionally famous that the Ministry of Environment is chargeable for checking that forest clearance doesn’t exceed the boundaries of the dam’s concession.
“They [the Ministry of Environment] got here one time 4 or 5 months in the past, I haven’t seen them since,” the CMAC worker added.
Reporters sighted a handful of CMAC’s clearly labeled, distinctive white excavators across the entrance to the dam in April 2022, however all through 2022 and 2023, each inside and outdoors the location, fleets of yellow excavators have been seen.
An excavator noticed engaged on the entry highway to the 150-megawatt Stung Tatai Leu hydropower dam within the Central Cardamoms National Park. Image by Mongabay.
“One truck could be rented to the [Chinese] firm for $2,400 and also you pay the motive force simply $400 per 30 days,” mentioned Toch*, a driver working for a buddy who owned development automobiles used on the dam. “The dam will take three and a half years to finish, so for every month over that point, you may make loads of revenue. They want extra automobiles.”
Other residents who had additionally labored for Cambodian Upper Tatay instructed it was the Chinese staff, and never the Cambodians, who have been clearing the forest.
“I helped construct that highway for $12.50 a day and I all the time noticed logs left on the facet of the highway,” mentioned Samroul*, who additionally owns a small durian farm in Thma Bang district. “It’s largely the Chinese staff clearing the forest, however they receives a commission by the federal government, that’s what one among them advised us. The forest will all be gone quickly, together with the wild animals that reside in it.”
Samroul advised Mongabay that thick forest as soon as sprawled throughout the mountains behind his farm. But its tranquility had been shattered by the near-constant buzz of chainsaws, the grinding of heavy equipment cracking its manner by way of the forest, and the occasional blast of dynamite as mountains are leveled to make manner for the brand new dam.
“We’ve seen the Chinese staff coming in to construct the dam,” Samroul mentioned. “They advised us it’s to help tourism, however they’re destroying the mountain, they’re clearing the forest, quickly there’ll be nothing to see however farms and plantations.”
As such, whether or not the timber comes from throughout the authorized boundaries of the Stung Tatai Leu’s land concession or is lower from past these boundaries and laundered by way of it’s inconceivable to inform.
When requested how he ensures that the timber the jail workshop makes use of is legally sourced, Pros was evasive.
“The timber comes from throughout Koh Kong province, wherever it falls,” he mentioned in a March 2023 cellphone interview. “The authorities granted a concession to the Chinese firm to construct the dam and it’s the proper of the bidders to both burn it down or do what they need with it. They see us once we gather the timber — we aren’t loggers.”
In January 2023, reporters adopted a truck belonging to Yous Pros from the Stung Tatai Leu hydropower dam development web site to the Koh Kong provincial jail. The picture was taken shortly earlier than the truck crossed the Veal Pi checkpoint, which was manned by park rangers from NGO Wildlife Alliance and the Ministry of Environment. Image by Mongabay.
Yous Pros: Inmate coach or timber dealer?
The supply, route and vacation spot of the timber circulation managed by Pros stay largely unmonitored, underregulated and open to abuse, in keeping with these acquainted with the state of affairs. But Pros insisted, in each interview over the previous 12 months, that his enterprise is completely authorized.
When interviewed in April 2022, Pros would solely give his first identify, which can be the Khmer phrase for “male,” however residents of Koh Kong who had bought timber from him have been capable of produce invoices from Yous Pros Timber Depot — an organization not registered with the Cambodian Ministry of Commerce.
Pros is a comparatively small participant in Cambodia’s timber commerce, seemingly working at a neighborhood stage, however he’s a identified entity to Wildlife Alliance’s Lefter, who mentioned Pros and the jail had official permission to gather timber.
Lefter referred to 2 Khmer-language paperwork associated to the jail: one from the Ministry of Environment dated July 14, 2020, allowing the transport of timber, and a second from the Ministry of Interior dated Sept. 16, 2014, establishing a furniture-making abilities growth program at Koh Kong provincial jail.
Lefter declined to share these paperwork with Mongabay, and neither Neth Pheaktra nor Nouth Savna, the respective spokespeople for the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Interior’s prisons division, would affirm the existence of those paperwork or their contents, making it laborious to confirm the legality of Pros’s operation.
But Lefter mentioned Pros was solely licensed to take timber already set to be felled and that authorities had approached the Wildlife Alliance to permit Pros to take action.
“You have to grasp [that] we work with the Provincial Department of Environment and the Ministry of Environment to implement regulation enforcement on the bottom and we choose that to be a constructive establishment,” Lefter mentioned.
The association, he mentioned, requires Ministry of Environment approval and retains everybody joyful, as Wildlife Alliance feels higher capable of management the timber circulation in Koh Kong. However, he famous there are limits to the extent of entry the conservationists take pleasure in.
“You have to grasp that we’re an NGO, we don’t actually go contained in the jail to see what they’re doing,” Lefter mentioned.
An aerial view of the timber depot and sawmill behind the Koh Kong provincial jail from January 2023. Logs could be seen submerged within the pond between the jail and the timber depot. Image by Mongabay.
Between threatening Mongabay’s reporting workforce and taking images of them “to ship to the Ministry of Environment, Wildlife Alliance, the National Police, the Forestry Administration and the General Department of Prisons,” Pros insisted that his enterprise was authorized and that he was employed by the National Police Commissariat, however denied being a police officer.
The operation has run for 10 years, in keeping with Pros. Reports relationship again to 2017 detailed a police raid in Prek Svay village that uncovered 24 giant logs that police mentioned have been harvested illegally. The timber was discovered unprocessed and submerged in a pond in the identical village because the jail. The reviews state that the wooden, and the pond, belonged to a person named Pros.
This isn’t the one run-in with the regulation Pros seems to have had. In March 2019, Koh Kong provincial police pulled over two vans carrying sawn planks of “uncommon” timber and located they have been each carrying greater than their permits allowed. Despite protests from Forestry Administration officers, the 2 automobiles have been seized and a crane truck was introduced in to take away the surplus timber, which was then saved on the police station.
One picture reveals the cellphone quantity listed on the facet of the crane truck. Its proprietor, who requested to not be named, mentioned they’d repeatedly pulled logs from ponds and from vans on behalf of the police in Prek Svay village, close to the jail, noting that the proprietor of the logs was a identified timber dealer within the space. Pros, residents of Prek Svay advised reporters, is the one timber supplier on the town and provides a variety of merchandise to an array of native clients.
Mere months later, in May 2019, Koh Kong provincial police requested to examine a suspicious-looking truck, just for the motive force to hurry off — till the truck’s wheels broke. The driver then fled on foot, escaping police, who discovered the deserted truck laden with a mixture of freshly lower spherical and sq. logs. This truck, police mentioned, broke down on its solution to Stung Veng commune. The identical crane truck driver, whose automobile was employed once more by police, instructed this truck was seemingly heading to the ponds the place different unlawful timber had been found.
Stung Veng, a sparsely populated and distant a part of the already remoted Koh Kong province, sits simply exterior the provincial city. Home to the jail and Pros’s community, the world has reportedly seen quite a few incidents in 2018 and 2019 that counsel it has a long-running connection to a doubtful timber commerce. During one such incident in 2019, vans touring towards the world have been stopped by police on National Road 48. The driver reportedly didn’t know the proprietor of the timber, however advised police the timber had come from so far as Stung Treng province in Cambodia’s northeast — the place deputy jail director Meuk Saphannareth’s logging community was discovered to function — and was certain for a village some 5 km (3 mi) from the jail.
“I’ve no license to gather timber from Oknha Chey, I’ve no involvement,” Pros mentioned. “This processing is thru the Ministry of Interior, they granted us permission.”
However, when requested concerning the previous circumstances the place police reportedly intervened in his operation, Pros instructed “There was some confusion, from a number of years in the past.”
Pros went on to element how he saved cham bok timber (Terminalia catappa) in a pond to keep away from the timber rotting on land — a technique usually favored by these looking for to maintain ill-gotten luxurious timber species out of sight till it may be bought.
“We retailer it within the pond to maintain it longer, then we are able to pull it out and course of it as we want it,” he advised Mongabay in a March 2023 cellphone interview. “The authorities returned it to us after they confiscated it. They have been confused as a result of they thought it was a forest crime.”
At the tip of the interview, unprompted, Pros reiterated “I’m not concerned with Oknha Chey, I don’t know them, that’s their enterprise. We solely take from Koh Kong.”
Processed timber sits within the yard on the depot of the Koh Kong provincial jail in April 2022. Image by Mongabay.
‘Nobody goes to jail in Koh Kong for logging’
Koh Kong province sits on the coronary heart of the Cardamom Mountains, which span greater than 4.4 million hectares (11 million acres) throughout southern Thailand and Cambodia’s western provinces. Its forests have lengthy been defended, partly, by Koh Kong’s isolation, treacherous terrain and conservation efforts.
The mountainous coastal province is battered by greater than twice as a lot rainfall because the nationwide common throughout the peak of Cambodia’s moist season. Road and infrastructure growth in Koh Kong lags behind a lot of the nation as a consequence of some 90% of the province’s landmass being designated as protected, leaving Koh Kong because the second least densely populated of Cambodia’s 25 provinces, with simply 12 individuals per sq. kilometer, or about 31 individuals per sq. mile.
As such, Koh Kong has remained considerably much less affected by the logging frenzy that gripped Cambodia within the 2010s. Between 2001 and 2021, Cambodia noticed a 30% lower in its old-growth forest cowl, dropping roughly 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million acres) — an space bigger than Rwanda — in keeping with Global Forest Watch information. Koh Kong province, in contrast, misplaced 10,100 hectares (25,000 acres) of its old-growth forests, or a 7.7% lower from 2001, over the identical interval.
The July rain floor progress on the Stung Tatai Leu hydropower dam to a halt, and likewise put an efficient however momentary finish to the unlawful timber commerce throughout the Cardamoms. Residents of Prek Svay village, the place the jail is positioned and the place Pros operates, have been aware of the timber commerce’s function within the village.
“I’m undecided what number of vans transporting timber go to the jail every week however they journey at evening and often, they drop it off simply exterior the jail gates, within the marshlands,” mentioned Serey*, a restaurant proprietor in Prek Svay village.
Having lived her complete life in the identical village in Koh Kong, Serey, like many residents, knew somebody within the timber commerce.
“My buddy works for the jail generally, however different instances he works for the Forestry Administration – he has loads of casual jobs, however loads contain going into the forest, chopping timber and bringing it into the jail,” she mentioned.
When requested whether or not her buddy had ever been caught by the authorities, Serey laughed.
“Nobody goes to jail in Koh Kong for logging,” she mentioned. “My buddy has good connections on the jail and on the Forestry Administration, it’s systematic corruption.”
Photos from inside the location of the Stung Tatai Leu hydropower dam present the extent of the injury. Reporters have been capable of entry the location in January 2023, when forest was being cleared to make manner for the reservoir. Image by Mongabay.
Serey was capable of introduce her buddy, Hong*, to Mongabay’s reporting workforce. While Koh Kong province’s total forest cowl might not have been severely affected by loggers, kra nhoung — Siamese rosewood (Dalbergia cochinchinensis) — has been sought out to feed Chinese markets to the purpose that the species is taken into account nearly extinct in Koh Kong and far of Cambodia.
“I used to chop timber, rosewood largely, however the rosewood was a few years in the past now,” Hong mentioned. “I carried blocks weighing 60-70 kilograms [132-154 pounds]; I needed to cease after I grew weak. Now I solely log smaller timber.”
Hong’s hunts for kra nhoung, thnong (Pterocarpus macrocarpus) and chhlik (Terminalia alata) had been each exhaustive and exhausting.
“The luxurious wooden is changing into tougher to seek out now,” Hong mentioned. “It’s very completely different from the way it was once and lot of people that labored in logging have give up — most ended up fishing on the ocean. But [although] Koh Kong Krao nonetheless has some, it’s uncommon now.”
And so the job that years beforehand earned Hong $1,500 per journey has steadily ebbed away as probably the most useful timber have been stripped from the Cardamoms. His earnings have been pared again with the timber: on his final journey, in January 2022, he obtained simply $250, with charges for loggers dwindling even decrease since.
“I need to converse the reality, I gained’t cover something. I realized the reality that the forests of Cambodia are being destroyed, there’s virtually nothing left. Now I work for the jail chief at Prek Svay village; they despatched me to chop timber, largely from [Koh Kong and Pursat provinces] — this was simply six months in the past,” Hong advised reporters in July 2022.
Hong mentioned he was a part of an ever-changing five-man workforce, utilizing a truck offered by the jail and chainsaws confiscated by Ministry of Environment rangers who work at Wildlife Alliance’s Veal Pi ranger station — though solely when the barang (foreigner) ranger was away on patrols.
“We have been advised to chop particular timber, many forms of luxurious timber; the jail gained’t take low-grade timber,” he mentioned. “When we transport timber out from there, now we have to pay round 100,000 to 200,000 riel [$25 to $50] to the Wildlife Alliance rangers — it’s the plainclothes officers, not the barangs.”
All bribes wanted to be lined upfront by the loggers, he defined, including that fee got here when the timber arrived on the jail. Luxury timber was hidden in ponds exterior the jail, whereas hardwoods of decrease worth have been left within the jail yard.
“I’ve by no means had any issues with the regulation or with Wildlife Alliance as a result of now we have programs. [Ministry of Environment] rangers use walkie-talkies to warn us about different authorities or unhealthy climate,” Hong defined. “But I can’t go into the mountains now due to the rain.”
Lefter rejected the concept that Wildlife Alliance rangers would supply safety to loggers, saying the NGO solely displays to make sure that forest clearance stays throughout the boundaries of growth initiatives. With regard to the testimony of loggers who claimed to have labored for Pros on the Koh Kong jail, Lefter was frank.
“Pros has curiosity to remain in his truck, if not, he’ll be so fucked,” Lefter mentioned. “He is aware of us very nicely. He is aware of what we’re able to.”
But Wildlife Alliance is remitted to guard some 1.3 million hectares (3.2 million acres) of protected forest, and the federal government has insisted rangers from provincial departments of setting, together with navy law enforcement officials, help with this. While Wildlife Alliance maintains there’s no corruption amongst its workers, situations of Ministry of Environment rangers and the navy police taking bribes and even working straight with loggers are well-documented — even in Thma Bang district the place Wildlife Alliance operates.
An aerial view captured April 2022 reveals the entry highway that carves its manner by way of the forest to the 150-megawatt Stung Tatai Leu hydropower dam in Central Cardamoms National Park. Image by Mongabay.
Private enterprise in a public jail
Further including to the load of Hong’s claims are the contractors that each Pros and Koh Kong jail chief Kry Buntha confirmed work within the jail timber yard.
These males didn’t sport the blue jumpsuits foisted upon Cambodian prisoners, however have been, in keeping with Buntha, employed to “exit to the forest to gather and transport timber,” with their wages paid by the sale of timber and furnishings made by inmates.
“We don’t take inmates to move from the forest, however the price of the dragging [trees] and assortment is spent on renting [equipment] and transportation — it’s not simple to move,” Buntha mentioned in a July 2022 cellphone interview.
He denied the contractors have been concerned in unlawful logging or the felling of luxurious timber species, earlier than demanding reporters submit an official interview request by way of the Ministry of Interior’s prisons division and hanging up.
Following his boss’s lead, when Pros was contacted in July 2022, he mentioned the jail might solely gather logs smaller than 40 centimeters (16 inches) in diameter, after which hung up when advised of photographic proof that confirmed considerably bigger logs being transported to the jail.
When requested whether or not Pros’s operation constituted exploitative jail labor, Lefter of Wildlife Alliance mentioned his understanding was that inmates making furnishings have been paid an unknown amount of cash as credit score, to be handed to them upon their launch from Koh Kong jail.
Pros initially mentioned inmates have been paid between 20,000 and 30,000 riel (roughly $5-$7.50) for every wood merchandise made, noting that every piece might take days or perhaps weeks to craft. This, he added, is why the abilities growth program was restricted to inmates who obtained a two-year sentence or longer because it helped them pay for his or her meals, medical remedy, toiletries and different providers as is typical in Cambodian prisons.
Google Earth satellite tv for pc imagery evaluation reveals that the most recent constructing on the Koh Kong provincial jail timber yard sprung up between January and July 2019. But it has since expanded, with the latest imagery exhibiting extra timber than at another level. Image by Gerald Flynn/Mongabay.
Local media reported that the provincial jail in Battambang province, in Cambodia’s northwest, additionally ran a furniture-making enterprise again in 2014 that equally relied on exploiting jail labor to provide an array of things out of luxurious wooden. It’s unclear from the report what motion, if any, authorities took to evaluate whether or not prisoners have been being exploited, however at Koh Kong jail, Pros mentioned the International Committee of the Red Cross supported this system he runs.
A supply working on the Cambodian ICRC workplace in 2022 might solely affirm that the ICRC was now not concerned within the challenge, however not whether or not the ICRC had been affiliated with this system at an earlier date.
When contacted once more in March 2023, Pros reaffirmed that he labored along side the ICRC, however on the matter of remuneration for inmates would solely say “I can’t let you know how a lot I pay inmates, that’s an inside coverage.”
Pros mentioned that solely between 20 and 30 of Koh Kong jail’s estimated 550 inmates might take part within the timber yard’s abilities growth program, a declare backed up by testimony from two former inmates who spoke to Mongabay and, collectively, spent greater than 23 months behind bars in Koh Kong.
“I noticed between 30 and 50 prisoners after they have been queued as much as work on the wooden workshop,” mentioned Chandy*, a former Koh Kong resident who not too long ago left the province following his launch from jail. “They stored these inmates in a distinct set of cells, so we didn’t see them usually, however they made wood sculptures for the jail to promote. Some inmates obtained some cash, however most don’t get something — I’m undecided why it’s completely different for some.”
Details offered by Chandy matched reporters’ personal observations, together with that the timber was largely processed round daybreak and that exterior contractors have been introduced in to work within the timber yard. Chandy was additionally capable of produce a hand-drawn map of the Koh Kong jail that was verified by these acquainted with the jail’s format.
“Each time I used to be imprisoned there, the wooden workshop was there and every time they’ve had inmates working with rosewood within the jail. I don’t know the place they get the wooden, however I solely heard issues concerning the wooden workshop from fellow inmates, I by no means labored there,” Chandy mentioned. “Whether the jail is concerned in unlawful logging or not, I don’t know, however they’re the regulation, they’ll do as they want.”
The hand-drawn map offered by Chandy*, a former inmate who served time in Koh Kong provincial jail. The map was verified by individuals acquainted with the format of the jail. Image by Gerald Flynn/Mongabay.
Panha* didn’t work within the timber yard both, however offered paperwork verifying his incarceration and detailed his conversations with different inmates.
Timber vans arrived early at evening, inmates and “outsiders” processed the timber by way of the evening, able to promote the processed timber the next day, he mentioned, suggesting, as others in Prek Svay village had, that the jail was additionally promoting timber wholesale, somewhat than solely furnishings sculpted by inmates.
“They gather timber from the roads and unlawful timber,” Panha mentioned. “Honestly, they don’t seem to be authorized, however they promote the timber inside [Koh Kong] city and within the districts of Andeung Teuk and Sre Ambel, I heard for $700 per cubic meter,” or about $20/ft3
Panha mentioned he didn’t know whether or not inmates have been paid, however famous that the jail’s logging operation gave the impression to be linked to native authorities and that they might make good cash within the dry season.
Bolima*, a resident of Stung Veng commune whose father misplaced a land dispute with a neighborhood official and was subsequently incarcerated at Koh Kong jail, mentioned she’s been noticing vans carrying logs that bulged out beneath blue tarpaulin cross by way of her village since not less than 2017.
She mentioned she had additionally seen the gadgets produced by the inmates bought at Dong Tung Market in Koh Kong city, and that Pros was identified domestically for facilitating the gross sales each on the market or on the homes of repeat clients. Forestry Administration officers, she added, had been dropping timber off on the jail — one thing she mentioned she heard from the residents of Stung Veng commune who had labored for the jail as loggers.
“Everyone concerned is making a living: the jail, loggers, furnishings retailers, I don’t assume the timber used within the jail could be authorized,” she added. “They make high-value merchandise from the wooden, so I feel it’s unlawful logging.”
A resident of Prek Svay village, the place the Koh Kong jail is positioned, was capable of present reporters with an bill from “Yous Pros Timber Depot” — an organization not registered with the Ministry of Commerce. Image by Mongabay.
Damming the river, damning the forest
Hydropower dams have, traditionally, given cowl to unlawful logging operations throughout Cambodia, and the Cardamoms aren’t any exception.
In Pursat province, the Stung Atay hydropower dam entitled the builders to clear 4,179 hectares (10,327 acres) for the reservoir. Instead, specialists estimated some 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres) of forest have been misplaced to unlawful loggers searching down rosewood for Try Pheap, a strong tycoon and former adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
It was whereas investigating unlawful logging by Timbergreen, an organization linked to Hun Sen’s household, throughout the development of the Chinese-developed 338 MW Lower Russei Chrum dam in Koh Kong that outstanding forest activist Chut Wutty was murdered in 2012.
Protesting the Stung Chea Areng hydropower dam in Koh Kong province’s Areng Valley noticed the environmental activist group Mother Nature Cambodia’s founder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson arrested and deported in 2015; two years later, the federal government canceled the dam anyway.
Similar tendencies of unlawful logging, timber laundering and the focusing on of dissenters arose along side the development of the Lower Sesan 2 hydropower dam in Cambodia’s northeastern Stung Treng province.
Hydropower dams in Cambodia have been labeled “engines of extraction” for the path of forest loss, evictions and the commodification of pure sources that they go away of their wake — even dams that by no means make it to completion. Despite this, extra lurk over the horizon.
The 246-megawatt Stung Tatay Hydroelectric Project, downstream of the Stung Tatai Leu hydropower dam, which was accomplished in 2014. Image by Mongabay.
Across Koh Kong and Pursat, two key provinces within the Cambodian part of the Cardamom Mountains, 5 dams are already operational, with one other beneath development in Pursat. Between the 2 provinces, 10 websites have been recognized as appropriate locales for advancing hydropower ambitions and one other three websites are beneath research.
Neth Pheaktra, spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment, didn’t reply to detailed questions despatched by Mongabay, however as an alternative issued a basic assertion noting that each one hydropower initiatives performed environmental affect assessments which he wouldn’t disclose the findings of.
“Those who criticize the development of hydropower dam[s], it means they need Cambodian individuals have to return to burning a kerosene lamp in 21[st] century,” mentioned Pheaktra, with out addressing the questions associated to unlawful logging linked to dams. “With hydropower, we are able to develop our nation by serving industries and providers.”
Wildlife Alliance deputy director Neth Vibol mentioned “Yes, we’re apprehensive [about more hydropower projects in the Cardamoms], we don’t need that to occur right here, but when it does, then we must try to work with the businesses.”
But in Thma Bang, Vibol’s fears have already been realized by residents, who’ve seen the quiet of the misty and mountainous panorama reworked by an inflow of development staff.
Cambodia’s pursuit of unpolluted power is a precedence, in keeping with Hun Sen, however omitted from the pro-government protection of elevated hydropower growth is the very actual affect that dams have upon the ecosystems they search to rework and management.
The Stung Tatai Leu dam web site has seen historic forests picked clear and prisoners exploited. Few native residents interviewed by Mongabay mentioned they see a lot profit, significantly because the district was already electrified by the Stung Tatay dam scarcely 20 kilometers away.
“The dam is Chinese, the highway to it’s Chinese — with out the dam, there wouldn’t be a single Chinese particular person in our village,” mentioned Dara*, a Thma Bang district resident who, in April 2022, had taken a job driving truckloads of development materials to and from the dam web site.
“They solely need timber, mines and infrastructure — they don’t just like the forest, they only need the cash,” Dara mentioned, sighing. “In Cambodia, if we put our nation up on the market, the Chinese would purchase it.”
Workers on the 150-megawatt Stung Tatai Leu hydropower dam take a break after work, stress-free by a bridge that was constructed to move supplies to the development web site. Reporters discovered timber taken from the dam’s development web site used the identical highway to be delivered to a depot on the Koh Kong provincial jail. Image by Mongabay.
Banner picture: The timber depot contained in the Koh Kong provincial jail the place reporters tracked logs taken from the Stung Tatai Leu hydropower dam. Image by Mongabay.
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