The European Union has responded to criticism over a forthcoming deal on timber imports with Vietnam, saying the agreement will not have a negative impact on Cambodian forests.
The EU agreement, known as the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA), was criticized by civil society groups this week for negotiating the deal with Vietnam despite evidence that timber from Vietnam was being sourced from illegal logging operations in Cambodia.
George Edgar, EU ambassador to Cambodia, said in a statement to VOA on Monday that the issues raised by NGOs had been noted by the EU, but added that an EU FLEGT licensing scheme was in place to ensure only legally harvested timber made its way into the supply chain.
“After ratification of the VPA, Vietnam will need to develop its Vietnam Timber Legality Assurance System (VNTLAS), of which control of legality of imported timber is a major part, and strengthen its effective mechanisms to detect violations as well as ensure better law enforcement,” he wrote, noting that Vietnam has committed to issue legislation requiring importers to conduct due diligence to ensure that only legal timber enters the supply chain.
On October 10, a group of seven NGOs issued a joint-statement calling on the EU to postpone the signing of VPAs until a functioning and verifiable Timber Legality Assurance System (TLAS) had been established under the VPA.
The seven NGOs said that Vietnamese timber traders are actively undermining government structures in Cambodia by bribing state officials to secure lucrative timber deals. Often, the indigenous population is coerced and bullied into agreeing to sell their ancestral forests for a pittance, the groups alleged.
“Recent improvements in forest law enforcement in Laos have increased the Vietnamese pressure on Cambodia’s forests even more,” read the statement.
But Edgar said that the FLEGT VPA includes public disclosure of information on imported timber, together with information on actions taken to prevent illegally produced timber products being imported into Vietnam. The FLEGT VPA also provides for the setting up of complaints mechanisms and periodic independent evaluation of the timber legality assurance system, he said.
“Thus, if properly implemented, the FLEGT VPA has the potential to support the enforcement of relevant laws in Cambodia,” he wrote.
“However, while the FLEGT VPA is expected to have a significant positive impact in promoting trade in legally and sustainably harvested timber, the import of illegally logged timber from Cambodia also requires commitment and action from the Cambodian side and the EU is therefore encouraging Cambodia to take necessary steps to tackle the issue of illegal logging,” he added.
Ouch Leng, an anti-logging campaigner who heads to Cambodia Human Rights Task Force (CHRTF), said the VPAs should be scrapped.
“After the EU signs the agreement with Vietnam, Vietnam will come to destroy and log forest in our country in any way possible, including legal or illegal ways, to meet their quotas. In Vietnam, there is no more natural forest. There are only pine trees and trees planted in orchards, so it can’t meet the demand of the EU market,” he said.
“I don’t want the EU to conduct timber trade. It should distance itself from this business,” he said.
Keo Omalis, chief of the Ministry of Agriculture’s forestry administration, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. Officials at the Vietnamese embassy in Phnom Penh could also not be reached for comment.
Forest Trends, a forest monitoring group, released a report in early 2018 including data from Vietnam’s department of customs that showed there was a significant increase of timber imports from Cambodia to Vietnam in 2017.