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Saturday,  May 26,2018,15:15 (GMT+7)

Through a needle’s eye

Son Nguyen
Friday,  May 4,2018,18:14 (GMT+7)
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Through a needle’s eye

Son Nguyen

Numerous questions have surfaced these days since the arrest of an illegal logging kingpin in the Central Highlands province of Daklak last week. There are rangers regularly roaming the forests, there are State-owned entities overseeing the country’s forest resources, there are police and military forces tasked with checking any suspicious logging and poaching, and there are grassroots authorities keeping a close watch – let alone all roads and trails to and from forests are closed and put under siege with numerous checkpoints – but the ring has still managed to transport thousands of cubic meters of timber out in broad daylight. Local media likens it to passing a camel through a needle’s eye.

The scandal broke out when police under the Ministry of Public Security last Friday stopped two trucks in Cu Jut District in Daklak Province, and found the vehicles laden with some 40 cubic meters of timber. The drivers reported they were hired to transport the wood by a man named Phan Huu Phuong, 50, who was arrested soon after while trying to take flight. 

The timber, as the case unfolds, was being transported from a field inside Yok Don National Park, within just a stone’s throw from Outpost No. 747 of border guards near the border with Cambodia, according to news website VTC News. Around the field, investigators found many tractors, trucks, chainsaws, and piles of timber.

Meanwhile, Phuong also owns three warehouses in Cu Jut District, and inspections show huge stacks of precious timber and sawn wood estimated at some 1,000 cubic meters, according to Dat Viet. An investigator is quoted as saying in the news site that he “has never seen such a massive amount of wood, and it will take ten more days for scores of police officers to check and classify such an amount.”

The scandal invokes a key question as to why the culprit could have operated such a large-scale ring without being uncovered. Numerous other questions have also ensued, which hint at the high probability of collusion between law enforcement agencies and the ring leader.

An investigator remarks that the two trucks that were caught transporting timber from a site inside the Yok Don National Park to the center of Cu Jut District had passed through a series of outposts of border guards and checkpoints by forest rangers, according to Nguoi Lao Dong. However, it is questionable why the trucks were not discovered by such law enforcement units.

Tran Van Giang, head of the Forestry Division of Cu Jut District, admits in the news site Infonet that his agency did not learn of the illicit wood transport when the vehicles were stonewalled.

Do Quang Tung, acting head of the national forest management agency under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, says that the Forestry Division of Cu Jut District is to blame for failing to uncover the timber warehouses that have been in place for years, according to Phap Luat. He however takes an excuse that the criminal ring has managed to disguise its operations, and therefore, fighting such a crime requires the participation and assistance of other law enforcement agencies and local authorities.

There are also questions on the cover-up on the part of border guards, especially Outpost No. 747. It can hardly say that military officers at the outpost did not know of the fishy activity at the site. Tuoi Tre says the field used by the ring to stock timber is just hundreds of meters from the outpost, and the field was even supplied with water, power and wi-fi by the outpost.

Cao Huu Tung, head of the outpost, brushes aside suspicions of cover-up or conspiracy, saying on news site Dat Viet that his troops always closely watched activities at the site, and regularly checked workers and trucks brought into the area by Phan Huu Phuong. Tung says he does not know that the ring leader transported timber across the area supervised by the outpost, as claimed by the culprit to investigators.

Colonel Pham Quang Hung, commander of Daklak Province’s Border Guards, says on news site Dan Tri he has ordered leaders of Outpost No. 747 to quickly submit a full report on its interactions with the ring. He however explains the ring has employed a trick to prove its operation as legitimate. In early 2017, Daklak Province authorities had auctioned some 580 cubic meters of timber plucked from streams and rivers to Phan Huu Phuong, who then opened a warehouse to store the wood there, instead of quickly transporting the wood into town, according to the commander.

By storing the timber bought at auction inside the national park, the ring has had a good mask to perform illegal logging and transport. 

The origin of the illegal timber has yet to be established, but according to Lao Dong, it could have been sourced from Cambodia, while the management of Yok Don National Park has also reported illegal logging inside the forbidden forest.

As the case unfolds, investigators will at length pinpoint how the ring has dodged all oversight activities by authorities, and whether there are accomplices embedded in law enforcement agencies. However, there are facts pointing to the dereliction of duty among some responsible officials.

Nguoi Lao Dong reports how grassroots officers saw loggers taking along chainsaws on trucks into the forbidden forest in early April, and informed forest rangers and the forestry management company in Daklak Province’s Ea Kar District, but these two forces did not show up. The incident shows that the Central Highlands forest is bleeding despite the Prime Minister’s order to close all natural forests for two years now, says the paper.

Tuoi Tre asks how Phan Huu Phuong could conduct illegal activities right in the heart of the national park like in the no-man’s land. “Where were the forest rangers, border guards, local police, managers of Yok Don National Park, and authorities of Cu Jut District when the culprit transported timber into town?” ponders the paper.

In the same tone, Lao Dong in a commentary ponders why trucks could transport timber from the forest into town without being caught by authorities, and why illegal loggers can set up tents inside the forest to facilitate their logging beyond the knowledge of responsible people. Such ignorance on the part of authorities is the huge needle’s eye that allows the camel to pass through easily.

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