Activists Urge Investigation Into Rare Wood Seized in Hong Kong

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Logs of an ‘endangered species’ seized in Hong Kong after arriving in containers from Cambodia. (Hong Kong Customs)
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Activists and civil society organizations called for an investigation into more than 200 tons of endangered wood seized in Hong Kong about a month ago, as the agriculture minister said he had yet to receive the exporter’s details from Hong Kong authorities.

Some 31 groups signed a statement urging a thorough investigation after 211 tons of rare timber valued at about $140,000 were seized at Kwai Chung and Tsing Yi ports between April 29 and May 5. It was the largest seizure of protected wood by Hong Kong in five years, according to its customs department.

“Identification and prosecution of all parties involved in illegal timber exports and deforestation is necessary to put an end to rampant impunity for illegal logging. Such measures are crucial to protect Cambodia’s remaining forests, a national treasure at risk of being permanently lost,” said the statement, endorsed by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Cambodian Youth Network and the Prey Lang Community Network.

Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon said in a message on Thursday that the ministry was working with Hong Kong customs to find the companies responsible for exporting the rare timber, and was looking for evidence.

“We can’t tell you yet, because we only know briefly what it is, because the Hong Kong side has not yet given us an exact answer on which company exported. We are inquiring about that issue,” Sakhon said. “Just know that. But [we] don’t know yet which company exported.”

Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, which previously said it was investigating the case but could not disclose details, reiterated on Friday that it could not give information “to avoid compromising the investigation.”

Heng Kimhong, head of the research and advocacy program for the Cambodian Youth Network, said he was concerned about the continued loss of Cambodia’s forests, and wanted to see the criminals responsible brought to justice.

“This is a serious crime for which all those involved should not be spared punishment. Because we know that in recent times protected areas that are covered with large trees are continuously being eroded,” Kimhong said.

Puth Kolka, a social activist who signed the statement alongside 66 other individuals, said he was concerned about the loss of indigenous livelihoods and climate change as a result of deforestation.

Chheang Ly, a representative of the Prey Lang Community Network in Stung Treng province, said the forests were deteriorating in various ways, and communities were finding it harder to make a living.

“Forestry products are not as good as before. It used to be rich. And then there has been a drought. It used to rain regularly, but now it’s less regular. Everything has changed, and even the resin does not come out as before either,” Ly said.

Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said she wants to see effective prevention of forest crimes. Environmental activists and local communities again should be allowed to participate in forest patrols, she added.

According to Global Forest Watch data cited by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Cambodia lost 557,000 hectares of forest cover in protected areas between 2001 and 2018, representing a 11.7 percent loss.

Additional reporting by Michael Dickison

Updated at 5:13 p.m. with comment from the Hong Kong Agriculture Department.

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