The helicopter hovered 500 feet above a couple of men driving a timber-stacked tractor out of a Cambodian rainforest. "Those fuckers," spat Dimitri, a foreign law enforcement officer working for a conservation NGO.
"Land here, land here," he yelled. The pilot, who looked like a Top Gun extra in a white shirt and aviators, angled the chopper towards the tractor and its ant-like occupants.
We descended fast towards the edge of the evergreen forest in the southeast Cardamom Mountains. The loggers split. Dimitri leapt from the hovering chopper followed by a gang of colleagues.
The timber on the abandoned tractor came from a protected forest, one of the last elephant corridors in Southeast Asia, and home to all of Cambodia's endangered species. Over a period of a month tracking illegally logged wood and its routes out of the jungle, Dimitri's team have established that truckloads of it are ending up every day at a garment factory in the capital city Phnom Penh which supplies Timberland, GAP Inc, North Face, and other top brands.
The factory, called simply SL, burns the timber to heat water for washing machines and steam presses, according to a one laborer, Srey Sophal, who has worked there for 14 years. "They burn wood because it's cheaper than gas."
"I'm not sure how many trucks arrive per week," Somphun, a porter at SL for more than 11 years, told VICE News. "But I know it is a lot... they have a stack [of timber] as big as a mountain."
In Cambodia, forest-clearing is permitted in designated areas called Economic Land Concessions (ELCs) where forest is cleared to make way for hydropower dams, other development projects, and plantations of crops and trees such as cassava, rubber, and sugar cane.
Timber from plantations can be legally sold, but ELCs are quickly cleared so loggers continue to decimate protected forests to get more lucrative timber, and falsely claim it came from ELCs — more or less with impunity, thanks to rampant corruption.
The apocalyptic results were revealed as the helicopter passed over Koh Kong province in southern Cambodia, now at a height of 1500 feet. The affected forest had been left threadbare by the cull while an adjacent ELC was just empty hectares of khaki-coloured dust.
"They haven't even made a plantation yet," said Dimitri observing the large concession. "Because they are still taking wood from the forest and claiming it's from the ELC." Once the section of forest has been totally stripped of timber that can be sold, the loggers will burn the rest, claimed Dimitri. "So they can declare it 'degraded forest' and turn it too into a plantation."
Dimitri and his colleagues have videos, photos, and GPS-tagged maps which show timber illegally logged from protected areas being taken from Koh Kong to SL factory in Phnom Penh. After seeing and photographing the dusty ELC and decimated protected forest, we flew back to the capital.
"It is highly probable that there is more than one factory buying the firewood," said Suwanna Gauntlett, CEO of Wildlife Alliance, a conservation group that works with forestry officials. "I know Dimitri's team observed five trucks per night arriving at SL factory but I know at least 11 trucks leave protected forests around our jurisdiction every day."
"Head to these coordinates," said Dimitri into the helicopter's radio as we approached the hot sprawl of Phnom Penh. Hovering above SL we took photos of trucks stacked with large logs in the yard. Dimitri said the trucks were from the Koh Kong ELC. "We have never used wood from palm, rubber, or cassava plantations," said Somphun, the porter. "We only [buy] big wood from the big forest."
GAP Inc, which takes a significant proportion of SL's output, declined to comment but a spokesperson said the company would investigate.
"The alleged actions contradict our respect for the environment and commitment to sustainable operations," said Vanessa McCutchen, a spokesperson for VF Corporation (who make North Face, Wrangler, and Timberland, among other brands). They too are investigating the matter.
Many other brands could be involved because SL functions as a laundry service to other factories. "Other factories transfer clothes to us to wash," explained Sophal. "[Brands include] Levi, GAP, and Joe Fresh."
Chaps Ralph Lauren and YSL, who are listed on the SL website, did not respond to email requests for comment. Marks & Spencer, who source from Cambodia but don't disclose details of their suppliers, also didn't respond.
Sophal dug in his pocket and produced a Joe Fresh label he said was from the factory. The Canadian brand is owned by Loblaw — one of Canada's biggest companies. "[SL] is not an authorized factory," said a Loblaw spokesperson.
The illegal timber comes to SL via corrupt military officials, according to Gauntlett. "The military organizes the firewood supply," she said. Somphun agreed. "The timber arrives in co-operation with the government," he said.
One high-ranking official in the military police, a man named Meas Sotha, is a major shareholder at SL. He taunted workers' unions during a 2013 strike saying, "If they want to buy out my shares they can," according to a report in the Cambodia Daily.
"It's unsurprising the factory uses illegal timber," said William Conklin, Cambodia director for US-based labor rights group Solidarity Center. "We know energy costs are high in Cambodia. And it's actually the highest cost in [garment] production so factories would seek to minimize that."
Some blame could be laid at the feet of the brands, he continued. "For squeezing manufacturers [on price] so they are constantly looking to cut costs... it's hard to police every aspect of the supply chain but they should live up to [their] corporate and social responsibility."
Cambodian deforestation has occurred at a staggering rate in the last two decades with more than 1.5 million hectares of forest destroyed since 2001, according to data released by Global Forest Watch last year.
Until 1996, Cambodia's forests were no-go areas up due to the presence of Khmer Rouge guerillas who were fighting a long-running civil war. While the humans were busy slaying each other, biodiversity flourished.
After the war was over, then-Prime Minister Hun Sen began awarding rights to clear the forests to close allies like Try Pheap — a family friend and now Cambodia's most infamous timber magnate. Exploiting the ELC structure, Pheap made $227 million logging rosewood — a threatened species that can only be found deep in protected forests — from 2009 to 2012, according to a report in the Phnom Penh Post.
Incredibly, Pheap has also been granted the exclusive rights to collect illegally logged timber confiscated by government officials around the country to then sell on and export for a profit, according to an eight-month investigation by NGO Global Witness into the illegal logging trade in Cambodia.
"Try Pheap has a monopoly on timber export rights," said Ouch Leng, director of the Cambodian Human Rights Taskforce. "When he was given the rights to clear [through] ELCs, he agreed to keep [his activities] outside the protected forests... but he has violated this."
Forestry laws in Cambodia are excellent on paper but there is no muster. Law enforcement is often left to NGOs with patchy co-operation from the country's Forestry Administration. The Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) are one of the few groups trying to enforce the law in Prey Lang — one of the largest protected forests.
"It's a waste of time," said Leng who is part of the group. "All we can do is confiscate chainsaws and make loggers sign a contract promising not to do it again."
Anti-logging patrols are intimidated and attacked. Recently, a female volunteer was gashed in the ankle by an "axe-wielding assailant," according to a report in the Phnom Penh Post. The attacker was believed to be part of a logging gang. In 2012, both a well-known environmental activist and a journalist who wrote about the ties between Cambodia's elite and the illegal logging trade were murdered.
The setting sun reflected off the pilot's shades as the helicopter touched down in Phnom Penh. Dimitri had grown pensive. "Today, I believe in what we're doing," he said. "But there are very powerful people behind this and they don't give a shit about the forest."
*Names have been changed or shortened to protect identities. The organization Dimitri works for is not named out of concerns for the safety of their staff and operations.
Follow Nathan Thompson on Twitter: @NathanWrites