The 402,000 hectare CCPF is one of the largest conservation areas in Cambodia, covering six districts across Koh Kong, Pursat and Kampong Speu provinces. It is considered to be one of Indochina's richest conservation areas in terms of biodiversity, with vast numbers of endemic Cambodian flora that supports populations of pangolins, Asian elephants, Siamese crocodiles and other endangered or threatened species.
A conservation researcher who has worked extensively in Thma Bang but declined to be named, said the district was just one of four sites within the CCPF where tens of millions of dollars of rosewood had been cleared by companies abusing licences which only grant them permission to clear areas intended for dam reservoirs.
"It s like a gold rush the value of rosewood is so high, it s irresistible for cutters and middlemen - the researcher said - It s all relatively organised, how much the loggers and middlemen have to pay, and to whom. They know which checkpoints they have to go through. It has apparently reached the stage where most young men in Tatai Leu commune [in Thma Bang district] have been absorbed into the rosewood extraction."
Military personnel swarm Russey Chrum village in Thma Bang district, an almost endless procession of 4WD vehicles rolling in and out of town. They are matched only in number by the torrent of heavy transport trucks that clumsily rumble through the village during the day on their way to and from the forest. While investigating the trade, Post staff were stopped on two occasions by military police or soldiers claiming to work as security guards for a company the men refused to identify. Both times, the journalists were threatened with arrest and ordered to delete photos of trucks carrying illegal rosewood. The soldiers refused to explain why.
On the second occasion, military police set up a road block to apprehend the journalists in order to delete their photos.
About two kilometres from Russey Chrum village, situated on a small side road, a group of about 60 migrant loggers from provinces such as Pursat and Kampong Speu have cobbled together a makeshift camp of tarpaulins and cooking stoves. From there, they make daily forays into the nearby mountains in search of rosewood stumps, which they sell for a small profit.
Three months ago, Chhay Sengheng left his family in Kampong Speu province and headed to the Cardamom Mountains in search of a better salary. Previously, he had earned 20,000 to 30,000 riel per day as a builder. Now he ventures every day far into the surrounding mountains searching for rosewood stumps left by previous logging operations. "Of course, it is quite difficult to go away from the family, but we have no choice, we have to support our livelihood he said. Chhay Senghy estimates that in the previous three days alone, one to two tonnes of rosewood had been trucked out of Thma Bang from his site. No one has told him it is forbidden to take rosewood out of the CCPF.
No more than 10 minutes down the road, a thick pile of young rosewood timber lies poorly hidden next to a weigh station overseen by a man dressed in a Royal Cambodian Armed Forces uniform, and surrounded by RCAF paraphernalia. Standing beside a set of scales, a buyer, who declined to give his name, said he paid 1,500 riel per kilogram of rosewood stump. He would not say to whom or for how much he sold the timber or where the young rosewood planks had come from. I'm just a worker he said.
Villagers, forestry officials, buyers and commune officials in Thma Bang district all say rosewood in the area is bought by a company that no one is able, or willing, to identify. Chut Wutty alleges that company is Timber Green, a firm he says is paying villagers and workers employed for a separate project to cut rosewood in the CCPF. They always say they are clearing for hydropower, but they are not - he said - You can see it is a big amount. I think [what is happening] in the Cardamom Mountains, I've never seen as big as this.
Several sources have identified Timber Green as the logging company licensed to clear a reservoir area that will be created by the completion of the Stung Tatai dam on the Tatai river about 30 km away from Russey Chrum village.
Construction of the 246-megawatt Stung Tatai Hydropower Dam by the firm China National Heavy Machinery started in January this year.