BANGKOK — THE Thai government claims to have stopped the importation of illegal logs from Cambodia, but critics charge the shipments continue unabated.
The United Nations has forbidden the logging trade until the newly elected government of Cambodia can reassert control over its border. Money paid by Thai logging companies helped finance the Khmer Rouge and other factions in Cambodia's bloody civil war.
Ecologists say the forests play a crucial role in the area's environment. Trees act like a sponge for rainfall, holding water supplies and preventing erosion. Overlogging, they say, is mortgaging the area's economic and ecological future.
"Flying over you can see Burma, Cambodia, and Laos," says Daniel Henning, a tropical forestry expert in Bangkok. "They're cut all the way out. All you see is bare areas all along the Thai border. Thailand is simply milking the region dry of all the logs."
Yet Thai lumber companies, anxious to reap profits while they can, continue to cut down and ship out trees, according to Thai environmentalists.
"We know quite a large number of logs are coming into Thailand" from Cambodia, says Pisit na Patalung, secretary-general of Wildlife Fund Thailand. They arrive directly across the border or "through the Laos border."
The Thai government denies companies are systematically breaking the logging ban. Government spokesman Abhisit Vejjajiva says government ministries regularly investigate reported sightings of lumber trucks crossing the border and have found no violations.
Since the 1980s, the sale of logging concessions to Thai lumber companies has become a major source of profit for Cambodian political groups. All factions - including the Vietnam-backed Hun Sen government, the Khmer Rouge, and Prince Norodom Sihanouk's guerrillas - granted such concessions, according to both Mr. Pisit and Mr. Abhisit.
Thai lumber companies gladly struck deals with Cambodians in order to find a cheap source of wood for Thailand's ever-widening construction boom.
Thailand needs about 3.9 million cubic yards of lumber a year. Only about 10 percent goes to furniture companies; the remainder is used for construction. After 25 years of over-logging inside Thailand, little high-quality lumber remains for harvest.
Earlier this year the Thai government agreed to implement UN sanctions preventing logging inside Cambodia in an effort to stabilize the region. The Thai government declared its intention of stopping shipments of Cambodian logs across the border.
In recent months, as the Cambodian civil war wound down however, Thai loggers stepped up their lumber shipments, hoping to complete operations before the Cambodian central government could reassert control.
Mr. Henning concedes that the Thai government faces a difficult task in policing the long border. But after recently visiting that region, he says the government could be doing much more.
"Logging trucks are just pouring across the border," he says. "We saw 40 to 50 logging trucks in a couple of hours. [Government officials] are just not paying any attention to it."
Government spokesman and member of parliament Abhisit says such eyewitness reports are treated seriously. "Every time there is such a report," Abhisit says, "we ask officials at the border to check. Usually they aren't confirmed. We have made it clear that we must place national interests above the interests of a group of businessmen."
Such phone calls to the border do little good, say environmentalists, because the lumber companies bribe the border guards.
"The illegal loggers pay off government officials," Mr. Henning says, precisely so they will not report border shipments.