China's Insatiable Demand For Timber Destroys Cambodia's Forests

Cambodia's forests are being destroyed at a dizzying pace, with much of the wood destined for China. Much of the logging is carried out illegally — and people who get in the way of the loggers face violence and in some cases death.

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Cambodia's forests are dwindling, and China's insatiable demand for timber of any sort and luxury wood in particular isn't helping. Environmental groups say China is now the world's number one importer of illegal timber.

Yesterday, we heard how activists are trying to stop the practice. Today, Michael Sullivan reports from Cambodia on the human toll of the illegal timber trade.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Rosewood furniture is hot in this part of the world, but you won't find any at Phnom Penh's Lay Laing furniture store on Monivong Boulevard. Too expensive for our customers, the owner's son says, and it's illegal and, he says, all of Cambodia's rosewood goes straight to China anyway, where a rosewood living room set can cost 100,000 bucks or more.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I don't think that no one will stop it, either, because the people who should stop it is the people who may be blocking it. That's what I think. But for now, we can do nothing about it.

SULLIVAN: One man, Chut Wutty, was trying to do something about it. Cambodia's best-known conservationist, he was passionate about protecting the country's forest, which is how journalist Olesia Plokhii and a colleague found themselves with Wutty in Cambodia's southern Cardamom Mountains in April.

OLESIA PLOKHII: The first two days of our trip, nothing happened. We didn't feel any ominous energy or anything like that until the third day. I definitely felt something was off because of the way Wutty was acting. And it's almost as if though he sensed something in the air. And I could see that his tone just changed, and he kind of, you know, hurried us along and he said that this was a military-controlled illegal logging site. And so this was the reason that we had to hurry.

SULLIVAN: They weren't fast enough. A man in uniform showed up, then two military policemen. They demanded the group's cameras. Wutty at first resisted, then relented and eventually got into the car to leave, Plokhii says, urging the two women to get into.

PLOKHII: I ran around the front. I pulled the door handle to get in. But before the door even opened, I heard shots. I ducked. I ran into the forest. We came back. I came around the back. I knew he was shot. But he didn't look ghastly because there was not a lot of blood, and I thought he would live. I thought he was just unconscious but alive. And when I realized his chest was cold and he was motionless, I realized that he was gone.

SULLIVAN: One of the military policemen was also dead even though Wutty was unarmed. Plokhii and her companion listened, she says, as the men in uniform discussed a cover-up. Just kill them both, they heard one say. But eventually, the women were released. In the next week or so, the government came up with four different explanations of what happened that day. But in the end, the case was closed with no charges filed against anyone.

TRACY FARRELL: It was really disheartening to me to see that there wasn't even a decent investigation.

SULLIVAN: That's Tracy Farrell, who heads Conservation International's Greater Mekong Program in Phnom Penh.

FARRELL: I'm really disappointed with the fact that the case was closed so fast and there were so many different accounts, and none of them were even consistent day to day.

SULLIVAN: In September, another murder. This time, in the remote northern province of Ratanakiri. Hang Serei Oudom, a local journalist, was found hacked to death and stuffed into the trunk of his own car. The week before, he'd written a story implicating a local military official in a scheme to export illegal wood into neighboring Vietnam. Ou Virak, the president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, has investigated both cases and has an explanation. Illegal loggers, he says, don't have much patience for whistleblowers.

OU VIRAK: Well, if they believe that you have an intention to do that or you threaten to do that and they cannot just simply pay you small amount of fee to not do that, then they need to shut you out completely.

SULLIVAN: And you believe that's what happened to Wutty, and you believe that's what happened to Oudom.

VIRAK: Yes. That's right. And I think that's what happened to both case and probably other people that we, you know, that we don't know. I mean, there's accident case of journalist recently that we don't know whether it is actually related to his work or not.

SULLIVAN: Ou Virak says there's simply too much money to be made and too many stakeholders, many of them, he says, well connected to powerful people in government and not afraid of being punished. But government spokesman Phay Siphan flatly rejects any suggestion of collusion or any suggestion of a cover-up in the deaths of Wutty or the journalist Oudom.

PHAY SIPHAN: We don't have such a policy...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We don't have a policy to encourage people to kill each other, but some NGO's have a hidden agenda: to make a case and put the blame on the government.

SULLIVAN: He says the government is working hard to protect Cambodia's remaining forest, but concedes there may be a few bad apples in the bunch. Olesia Plokhii suggests it's more than just the fruit but the whole tree. After her experience, and what's happened since, she's now calling Cambodia's illegally exported timber bloodwood.

SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan.

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