The Cost of Luxury: Cambodia’s illegal trade in precious wood with China

TitleThe Cost of Luxury: Cambodia’s illegal trade in precious wood with China
Annotated RecordAnnotated
Year of Publication2015
AuthorsGlobal_Witness _
Key themesAccessToJustice, Environment, MarginalisedPeople

This eight-month investigation recorded tonnes of rare timber being trucked out of Cambodia’s national parks and shipped to Hong Kong. Logging of luxury-grade timber is outlawed in Cambodia, and the global trade in Siamese Rosewood has been restricted since 2013, but Chinese demand for antique-style Hongmu furniture is increasing and the illegal trade has ballooned since the ban was announced. During months of interviews with loggers, state officials, police and activists, our investigators kept coming back to one man, who we’ve dubbed the 'King of Rosewood'. Cambodian tycoon Oknha Try Pheap has connections at the highest levels of government and sits at the helm of an illegal logging network that relies on collusion with state officials and enforcement agencies to fell rare trees, traffic logs across the country and load them onto boats bound for Hong Kong. This black market trade is destroying the livelihoods of indigenous and forest-dependent communities. Those who oppose the illegal loggers put their lives on the line. Cambodia’s well-known environmental defender and forest crime investigator Chut Wutty was shot dead in 2012. Six months later journalist Hang Sorei Oudom, who wrote extensively about the elite’s links to illegal forestry, was found dead in the boot of his car. Global Witness is campaigning for a stop to illegal logging in Cambodia and the immediate suspension of all imports of rare Cambodian Hongmu timber by the Peoples Republic of China and Hong Kong officials.


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Overall relevance: 

This report examines the complex and deeply embedded networks of patronage that underlie the illegal trade in luxury wood for export from the northeast of Cambodia to China. The report examines the extent to which state actors are complicit in illegal activities, and the degree to which Cambodian business tycoons, linked to powerful government officials, are permitted to exploit natural resources with total immunity from the law. The case study provides a detailed example of the way state-sanctioned economic land concessions can facilitate exploitative and corrupt monopoly industries.

Key Themes: 
  • Dispute resolution and access to justice - Activists attempting to draw attention to those who are complicit in corrupt supply chains have been persecuted, threatened, and in several prominent cases, even murdered. Local communities have also been coerced into complicity. The climate of fear consequently makes it difficult to challenge corruption and expose illegal activities or seek justice for communities affected by economic land concessions.
  • Marginalized people's land rights and access: ethnic minorities, poor and women - State actors at various levels are complicit in the coercion of local communities to participate in the illegal timber trade they are supposed to prevent. Communities feel they have no power to resist companies from entering their land and are pressured to participate in extracting illegal logs. Once they become embedded in the supply chain, their complicity increases their vulnerability.
  • Land policy and land law - Existing laws in Cambodia should, in theory, prevent the exploitation documented by Global Witness in their case study. Yet each stage of investigation reveals that laws are routinely ignored or manipulated in favour of the powerful and wealthy.
Research basis: 

This report is based on an eight-month investigation carried out across Cambodia, as well as in Vietnam and Hong Kong, by researchers working with Global Witness. Interviews were conducted with 67 informants, including state actors at various levels of government, as well as company employees, and villagers. Various investigative methods were used to obtain original documents and photographic evidence, indicating significant illegal behaviour and disregard for the law all the way up to the highest levels of government in the supply chains of luxury timber exports from Cambodia, on route to China.