- Entire villages in parts of Cambodia have turned to illegal logging of natural forests to supply the firewood needed by garment factories churning out products for international fashion brands.
- Mongabay spoke with several people who acknowledged the illegal and dangerous nature of their work, but who said they had no other viable means of livelihood.
- The work pits them against rangers they accuse of heavy-handed tactics, including the seizure or destruction of their trucks and equipment, arrests, and extortion.
- This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network where Gerald Flynn was a fellow. *Names have been changed to protect sources who said they feared reprisals from the authorities.
KAMPONG SPEU, Cambodia — The lamp dangled precariously under the wooden stilted home. Hooked up to a car battery, it was all that illuminated Saroeun* as the fire that his wife had used to cook a dinner of rice and chicken ebbed into embers one evening in December 2022. The gloom of twilight enveloped the village of Kteh early as a chilled breeze bit through the mountains.
Saroeun’s village in Kampong Speu province straddles two protected forests — Aural Wildlife Sanctuary and Central Cardamoms National Park — so no streetlights illuminate the dirt road, and the residents of Kteh need to get an early night in preparation for another predawn departure into the forest in search of timber.
Saroeun said he would gladly trade in his life as a logger for any other opportunity — if only there were one.
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His 2-hectare (5-acre) rice field is larger than many of his neighbors’, but it yields just 100 bags of rice per year. Each bag, at about 40 kilograms (88 pounds), sells for around $1.
“I cannot earn enough from just selling rice. If the government established a garment factory here, at least 70% of people would stop logging and would start working there instead,” he said.
The irony of wishing for a garment factory in Kteh is not lost on Saroeun, who, like all of his neighbors, logs almost exclusively to feed wood through an elusive network of timber traders, middlemen and depot owners before the logs finally find their way into the boilers of a garment factory. Many of these factories produce garments, textiles, footwear and travel goods for international fashion brands, but few of these brands have proven willing to acknowledge the role that Saroeun and the villagers of Kteh play in pumping illegally harvested wood into their supply chains.
“If we had tourists coming here, we would become tour guides, we would not go to cut the trees,” he said, but noted that the decimation of Aural Wildlife Sanctuary’s forests — to some extent, by his own hand — has seen the once-popular hiking and camping destination lose much of its appeal.
Saroeun’s wife previously worked in a factory in Kampong Speu’s provincial capital, Chbar Mon, until she fell ill and could no longer manage the long, risky commute.
For the first 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Kteh to Chbar Mon, the road is little more than a dusty dirt track, cratered with potholes, prone to flooding during Cambodia’s wet season, and devoid of streetlights. This renders it extremely difficult for villagers to arrive before the typical factory shift that starts at 6 a.m., and dangerous to drive back after a shift ends once the sun goes down.
Saroeun said his niece dropped out of school after the fifth grade because her parents couldn’t afford to keep her in school. But she’s too young and the road is deemed too dangerous for her to make the journey to the city to find work in the factories, he said.
“So if I don’t do it [logging], then I have no way to support my family, I have no money to keep my children in school,” Saroeun said. “If we had other options, we wouldn’t go into the forest, it’s dangerous.”
Squeezed off the land
Before turning to logging, Saroeun had worked on a Chinese-owned sugarcane plantation that had been awarded 17,650 hectares (43,610 acres) over two adjoining land concessions held by two companies, Great Field and Yellow Field.
Both companies are registered at the same Phnom Penh address, according to Ministry of Commerce records, and Yellow Field lists Great Field’s email address, suggesting the two companies were created as a means to skirt the government’s limit on awarding concessions larger than 10,000 hectares (about 25,000 acres) to a single company.
When reporters visited the Phnom Penh address in the downtown Boeung Keng Kang 1 district, there was no evidence of a company office. The building listed had been torn down and remained a heap of rubble. Security guards at nearby establishments recalled the address listed for both Great Field and Yellow Field had been demolished some years ago.
Cordoned off, the bulldozed lot reflects the economic contribution that the Chinese sugar companies brought to Kteh when they functioned. Although the sugar plantations now sit fallow and mostly abandoned save for a quarry company that appears to have moved in, Saroeun remembers when the village felt initial excitement at the prospect of jobs provided by the planation — even if it did mean huge swaths of arable land were no longer accessible to them.
But the excitement soon melted away.
“The pay was low, only $100 per month,” Saroeun said. “The Chinese think we are cheap, they worked us very hard and blamed us for everything that went wrong.”
The companies were both ostensibly clearing forest to grow sugarcane, but a 2016 investigation by formerly independent local media outlet Phnom Penh Post uncovered that they had subcontracted out part of their concessions to a logging company that was providing timber to garment factories in Phnom Penh. That company even enlisted the help of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), including the commander of Military Region 3, where reporters recently uncovered a timber depot.
But as the forests within the Chinese concessions have mostly vanished, loggers like Saroeun have been forced to take their koy-yuns, a tractor and trailer commonly used by loggers in Cambodia, deeper into the jungle, using the dirt tracks hewn through surrounding concessions as access points.
Roughly 12% of Aural Wildlife Sanctuary has been privatized by economic land concessions which collectively cover 32,842 of the protected area’s 257,852 hectares (81,154 of 637,166 acres), according to data provided by human rights NGO LICADHO. In all, some 2.1 million hectares (5.2 million acres) of economic land concessions sprawl across Cambodia. Particularly among forested areas, these concessions have had the dual effect of increasing landlessness and thereby reducing agricultural opportunities for communities, while also lending a veneer under which illegal logging can be passed off as fully legal concession clearance.
This distinction is one that the garment sector has exploited for decades, with the legal provenance of wood used in factories murky, notoriously difficult to prove and, in many cases, overlapping.
Some of the wood comes from natural or protected forests and is definitively illegal to clear and sell, while some is sourced from agricultural plantations that produce leftover wood. Rubber trees, when reaching the end of their productive life cycle, are legally logged and sold as firewood.
However, the distinctions blur when wood comes from the site of a proposed plantation that was never cleared of its original forest cover. And so while the wood is natural forest wood, it comes from a source that the plantation owner is legally able to clear.
According to data published by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in August 2022, some 1.16 million hectares (2.87 million acres) of land had been given to agribusinesses in the form of economic land concessions. But of this, only 928,436 hectares (2.29 million acres) were earmarked for business activities and, of those, 507,510 hectares (1.25 million acres) were still being cleared while 402,760 hectares (995,240 acres) were being cultivated.
Despite multiple phone calls and messages, Im Rachna, spokesperson for the ministry, did not respond to detailed questions sent by Mongabay regarding the amount of land cleared for plantations or whether the government has earned more from 1.16 million hectares of plantations than the $2 million reported for 2022.
Dith Tina, the agriculture minister, read but did not respond to questions sent via messaging app Telegram, despite having publicly called for a review of inactive economic land concessions in March 2023.
Reporters delivered questions in writing to the ministry, addressed to both Tina and Rachna. However, no response had been received at press time.
In some cases, concessions appear to be owned by garment factory owners. This seems to be the case for Goldfame Star Enterprises, owned by Catherine Chan’s Hong Kong outfit, Goldfame Group. The conglomerate has been operating in Cambodia since 1996, with Ben Li, Goldfame Group’s chief financial officer and Chan’s husband, stating in a 2021 documentary that the group possessed 1 million square meters (100 hectares, or nearly 250 acres) of land — presumably for its nine factories.
But Li did not mention in the documentary that Goldfame Group’s many subsidiaries are involved in paper pulping and rubber production. Global Agricultural Development, Asia World Agricultural Development, Great Wonder Agricultural Development and Grand Land Agricultural Development are all part of the Goldfame empire.
Collectively, these concessions total 37,895 hectares (93,641 acres) across Stung Treng and Kratie provinces. Of the four, only Grand Land is run by Catherine Chan directly, while Global Agricultural Development is run by Ngai Tap Minh, a consultant for Goldfame. Other members of the Chan family control Asia World and Great Wonder.
However, both Green Island Agricultural Development and General Plantation & Timber and Export border concessions awarded to Goldfame Group’s management. Not only are the concessions directly adjoining, as Great Field and Yellow Field’s concessions are, but Green Island, Global Agriculture Development and Asia World concessions were all issued on March 15, 2006, while General Plantation and Great Wonder received their concessions on Aug. 11, 2006. Together, Green Island and General Plantation span 19,395 hectares (47,926 acres), meaning that if they’re under control of Goldfame Group, that brings the conglomerate’s total up to 57,280 hectares (141,542 acres), despite the government mandated 10,000-hectare limit.
Catherine Chan, chief executive officer of Goldfame Group, didn’t respond to questions sent by reporters as to exactly how much land the group controls. Also unanswered were messages sent to a general email address for Goldfame inquiring whether the group has needed to source wood from outside concessions to fuel its factories.
But while neither the government nor Goldfame were willing to comment on the role that concessions play in feeding Cambodia’s garment factories, a report by development NGO GERES suggested that, as of 2019, Cambodia’s supply of wood from cashew and rubber plantations was meeting roughly 30% of demand from the garment sector. It will likely take another 10 years of tree growth before Cambodia’s cashew and rubber plantations, GERES calculated, are able to produce enough sustainable wood to satisfy the demands of garment factories.
Although this report doesn’t take into account other sustainable sources of wood, such as acacia, mango or coconut trees, rubber remains the dominant crop, making up some 43% of all concessions issued and sprawling across 946,926 hectares (2.34 million acres) that are set to start reaching the end of their productive life cycle, allowing for the harvesting of the trees themselves, starting around 2034.
Until then, Cambodia’s garment factories will likely continue to rely on loggers like Saroeun.
Of logs and laws
Researchers say the reluctance of the Textile, Apparel, Footwear & Travel Goods Association in Cambodia (TAFTAC) to acknowledge, or seemingly to address, factories’ continued reliance on forest wood, coupled with loopholes and limitations to possible solutions put forward by international brands, means it remains likely that illegally sourced wood will continue to be mixed in with the sector’s supply of firewood for some time.
“Self-regulation can be effective to some extent in some contexts,” said Laurie Parsons, senior lecturer in human geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, and lead investigator on the report “Disaster Trade,” which examined the environmental impacts of the garment sector in Cambodia. “But it rarely goes beyond a few best practice case studies and always falls apart under pressure.”
The opaque nature of Cambodia’s garment supply chains, in which Saroeun plays a role — albeit a small one — allows for brands to take limited direct responsibility for what happens in their partner suppliers, Parsons explained.
“This is by no means an exclusive feature of the garment sector, but it is a major problem because even when major breaches in brand promises become apparent — as in this case — there is no consequence for the brands,” he said, noting that, at best, many brands simply cut ties with one factory and find another — often one beset by similar problems.
Legal governance of supply chains in countries that import from Cambodia are “the only way to guarantee compliance,” Parsons said in an email to Mongabay. He noted that while things are moving in that direction in both the U.K and Germany, which together accounted for roughly 10% of Cambodia’s exports in 2021, current legislation is still too weak to ensure abuse-free supply chains.
“Practices like this in the international economies of wealthy countries have been allowed to persist for far too long and need to be reined in,” Parsons added.
As international laws lag behind the ecological consequences of a globalized economy, local law enforcement is struggling to grapple with the realities of life in rural Cambodia.
“We’ll take dead trees if they’re available,” Saroeun said. “But we cut trees that are alive as well. We cut the live ones down when we cannot find the dead ones; dead or alive, the price is the same.”
Saroeun said if they’re caught with dead trees in their koy-yun, the authorities will likely look the other way. But if they’re found with recently felled trees in their stash, the consequences can be financially crippling.
“From logging, we can make $10 in profits per day, but if the chainsaw breaks then we need to use our family savings to fix it,” Saroeun said over a plate of rice and boiled chicken. “If we encounter government rangers or Wildlife Alliance, we will lose, so we log based on our luck. If we have luck, we will log, if not, we lose everything.”
For more than two decades, Wildlife Alliance, a donor-funded NGO, has taken on illegal loggers across the Cardamoms, including those working on behalf of Cambodia’s garment factories. Known to communities in Kampong Speu, Koh Kong and Pursat provinces by their former name, WildAid, the NGO’s staff partner with rangers from Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment, as well as military police officers, to arrest those caught committing forest crimes, confiscate their equipment and destroy seized timber.
“If they take our chainsaw, we will have to borrow money from other people in the village, but the koy-yun cost me $3,000,” Saroeun said. “Two years ago, when I first bought the koy-yun, Wildlife Alliance cut the belt on the engine and punctured the two tires — each tire was $55 to replace.”
Saroeun said he didn’t know the rangers who incapacitated his koy-yun, but added that he was thankful. He said that during a previous encounter, the Wildlife Alliance and government rangers set his koy-yun on fire, along with the timber he had been transporting — although he conceded that the timber was illegally sourced.
It takes a village to take a forest
Because of interactions like Saroeun’s, Wildlife Alliance’s approach to conservation has won it few friends among villages like Kteh, where the sense of fear and anger was palpable.
Upon flagging down a koy-yun laden with timber on the main stretch of dusty road that runs through Kteh, reporters began talking with Vibol* who said he was transporting the timber directly to Chbar Mon, the provincial capital of Kampong Speu, some 85 km (53 mi) east of his village.
Vibol said he makes this journey twice a day, earning the equivalent of $75 per trip, delivering wood he harvests from the base of Phnom Aural mountain to a Chinese-run garment factory in Chbar Mon.
“I sell directly to the Chinese, but it’s difficult because the language barrier makes it hard to negotiate so I just take what they pay me,” he said. “It’s safer to sell dead wood so I don’t have to pay a bribe to the Ministry of Environment — live trees are more valuable to sell to the factory, but riskier if we get caught.”
Just a few minutes into the interview, a small group of around 15 villagers came out of their houses, brandishing meat cleavers, knives and farming equipment. Upon realizing they were accosting journalists, the situation was defused. They apologized, explaining that they thought Wildlife Alliance rangers had come to detain Vibol and they were mounting a defense.
“My brother-in-law had his koy-yun confiscated and we had to pay 3 million riel [roughly $750] to get it back,” shouted one woman still brandishing a hatchet. “Two months ago, they beat a villager in Chombak [a village 27 km, or 17 mi, from Kteh] and broke his ribs.”
Vibol said he’d also been arrested by Wildlife Alliance and had to pay around $750 to rangers working at a nearby Ministry of Environment station to get his koy-yun back. The arrest and having to pay what he described as “tea money” forced him to stop logging for a while, but then he fell behind on repayments of the $10,000 microfinance loan that he’d taken out to build his house. And so, borrowing more money from friends and family, he set back out into the forest once again, in search of logs to fuel the factories.
“We feel afraid when you stop us, people here will always come out to stop Wildlife Alliance rangers from arresting us,” he said. “We have many problems with Wildlife Alliance, they take our koy-yun, they have set fire to them before. Wildlife Alliance don’t usually come into our village, but they try to catch us while we’re transporting the wood.”
Of the 15 loggers and timber traders whom Mongabay spoke to across three villages in Aural district during December 2022, the majority of them — 11 — said they were afraid of Wildlife Alliance. Eight said they had been arrested by Wildlife Alliance, while 10 said they’d had their logging equipment — including koy-yuns, chainsaws, minivans — confiscated.
Eight of the 15 said they had to pay a bribe to Ministry of Environment staff to have the confiscated gear returned, while two reported that their koy-yun had been damaged or destroyed. One individual said they experienced physical violence during an encounter with Wildlife Alliance and government rangers. Four said they had to take out loans to cover either repairs or bribes paid.
Wildlife Alliance’s head of law enforcement, Eduard Lefter, declined to comment.
In Aural district, logs are life
Across Kteh, villagers complained about the risks, but said logging for garment factories is the only viable source of income in the region.
Vibol said he’d tried to farm bananas on a 1-hectare (2.5-acre) plot of land, but the income wasn’t enough to keep up with his loan repayments.
Another koy-yun returning from one of the many dirt tracks leading into the Great Field concession was driven by Chansy*, a logger who called Kteh home.
“We just came from the mountains, we set off at 7 a.m. and we will only make $25, then we’ll sell it to one of the [middlemen],” he said. “We worry because what we’re doing is illegal, we don’t know what is concession land and what isn’t. But we go with many other loggers. I only started [logging] this year because my rice farm doesn’t make enough money so I have to log.”
The same situation is playing out in Soriya, a village roughly 14 km (9 mi) northeast of Kteh, where outside every home a koy-yun and big stacks of sawn-up round logs can be seen standing ready for traders to collect.
“We take our koy-yun up the mountain, we cut the trees down, cut them up and then roll the logs down the mountain to collect when we go home,” said Roeun*, whose day starts at 4 a.m. and ends long after the sun has set.
“After I buy diesel, this whole trip will only make $20 profit. When we have enough wood, we call the traders who come to collect it,” he said. “From there, they take it to Chbar Mon in Kampong Speu and they sell it to garment factories.”
These financial pressures, coupled with their trade equipping them with all the tools and skills needed, may also be driving some loggers to go off in search of more valuable timber.
Using a drone in Aural Wildlife Sanctuary, reporters spotted what appeared to be a stash of luxury or grade 1 timber nestled high up on the mountain, much farther away than any logger seeking to sell firewood to a garment factory would climb.
“It’s very far and very dangerous to climb up the mountain and then very difficult to navigate the rocks,” said Saroeun when asked about the luxury timber trade in Kteh.
He vehemently denied being involved in this trade, reiterating the risks both in terms of physical safety and the law, but he still produced a quote for higher-grade timber that he said he’d heard from other loggers.
“I don’t go after the luxury wood in the mountains, even though it’s $500-600 per cubic meter if the tree is more than 40 centimeters [16 inches] in diameter,” he said, adding that there are middlemen closer to Chbar Mon who offered that rate for timber too good to be used as firewood.
‘We have many laws, but we also have hearts’
Dara*, who requested that neither his real name nor the location of the Ministry of Environment ranger station he heads be published, for fear of retaliation from his superiors, acknowledged that the problem of illegal logging for the garment sector presents an ethical challenge for him and his team.
“The way that people cut trees here is the traditional way of life — it’s the only livelihood,” Dara said. “They can cut dead trees, no problem, but any [tree] over 13 centimeters [5 in] in diameter is a problem. If they cut those trees, that’s illegal, it’s a big problem here.”
These big trees, Dara explained, absorb a lot of carbon. This, he said, made the forest extremely valuable to conservation groups like Wildlife Alliance and Conservation International, the latter of which is reportedly attempting to establish a REDD+ project in Central Cardamoms National Park.
“Conservation International’s REDD+ people came to visit and tried to convince people not to log just last month,” he said in a December 2022 interview, adding that the Ministry of Environment had tried for years to convince people to stop logging and that he was hopeful that the potential payouts from a REDD+ project could turn the tide.
“It will reduce problems here if the garment factories stop buying logs,” Dara said. “At first, the villagers just farmed traditionally, but when the garment factories began buying wood, whole villages changed to selling timber to them.”
This wholesale conversion to logging across many villages in Kampong Speu’s Aural district has left Dara and other Ministry of Environment rangers with a dilemma in terms of combating illegal logging.
“We cannot implement the law, because these villagers have no other livelihoods, so if we enforce the law, we will have to take loggers to court and then who will look after their families?” he said, adding that his jurisdiction ends once the loggers are in police custody, and so there’s little he or his rangers can do to help.
“So when we encounter the loggers, we explain that a project is being implemented in our village,” Dara added. “We know they can’t stop logging because they have debts to pay.”
While Dara doesn’t work directly with Wildlife Alliance, like many other Ministry of Environment rangers he’s aware of their work and their reputation. Everyone in Aural district appears to be.
“When the Wildlife Alliance rangers see logging, they arrest the people immediately and implement foreign law, but they don’t understand Cambodian law,” he said. “We have many laws, but we also have hearts. Wildlife Alliance are doing the right thing, but it’s too much, it’s too over-the-top.”
When told of both the prevalence of logging across Aural Wildlife Sanctuary and the authorities’ response to it, Parsons of Royal Holloway said he personally doesn’t lay much blame at the feet of the communities themselves.
“Much of the individual and community scale logging is due to a range of structural economic and environmental pressures that are largely beyond their control,” he said, adding that NGOs’ resources are also insufficient in the face of these structural problems.
This, he said, leaves governments and brands, who Parsons added bear significant responsibility for Cambodia’s vanishing forests.
“In terms [of] the balance between them, it comes down to the capacity they each have to act,” he said.
“Illegal logging is still a feature of countries with far better developed government infrastructure than Cambodia’s — albeit usually not on the same scale — but it is entirely within brands’ gift to ensure that zero forest wood makes it into their supply chains,” Parsons said. “There’s no instant fix, but they have the resources and should be working towards complete elimination of this practice.”