BANGKOK (AP) — An environmental watchdog has accused Vietnamese government and military officials of taking payoffs to ignore vast smuggling of lucrative lumber from neighboring Cambodia.
Millions of dollars in bribes have been paid by Vietnamese timber traders to both Vietnamese and Cambodian officials, the report issued Monday by the U.K.-based Environmental Investigation Agency alleges.
It says the Vietnamese officials are paid off in exchange for granting import quotas for the timber and Cambodians are paid to open up logging areas and smuggling routes. The logging itself in Cambodia is often illegal, taking place in protected areas such as national parks.
Cambodia has banned the export of logs and since early 2016 has closed its border with Vietnam to timber as well. However, Vietnam has official quotas for such imports, which are also taxed.
Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to AP's request for comment on the report. Sear Ra, deputy chief of Cambodia's Forestry Administration, noted that such exporting was stopped 2016, and if it had happened since then, it would have been done secretly and illegally.
Cambodia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, much of it due to illegal logging and corrupt land deals.
Much of the timber trade is protected by military units that profit from deals with the loggers.
Vietnam's official quotas facilitate the smuggling from Cambodia and even allows Vietnam to profit by taxing the smuggled logs, the report says.
"Approximately 300,000 cubic meters of logs have been smuggled out of Cambodia and laundered in Vietnam under these quotas," it says, estimated the kickbacks have totaled more than $13 million since the beginning of November 2016'
The watchdog says Vietnam and the European Union are expected to sign an agreement to try to ensure only legal timber is exported from Vietnam.
"This is the single largest log-smuggling operation that we have seen for years," the group's senior forests campaigner, Jago Wadley said in a news release. "Vietnam must address this weak approach to any agreement with the EU to combat illegal logging and the associated trade."
The report points out that the illegal trade comes as Vietnam is working hard to protect its own forests, even as Vietnam's government "has promoted the rapid expansion of an export-oriented wood processing sector, which has become the sixth largest in the world."
It says Vietnamese exports of wood products are projected to total $8 billion this year, while imports account for at least 80 percent of the raw materials consumed by its factories.
Cambodia and Laos, another neighbor of Vietnam, together provided Vietnam with illicit timber worth almost three quarters of a billion dollars in a single year, says the report, noting that a crackdown in Laos has shifted the smugglers' attention to Cambodia.