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Cambodia Indigenous Communities Accuse Environment Officials of Illegal Logging, Corruption

BY: Teng Yalirozy  CAMBODIANESS Wed, February 2, 2022

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Indigenous communities in Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary and Prey Preah Roka Wildlife Sanctuary are deeply concerned about the gradual loss of forests caused by the deliberate timber trade of private companies. Photo from provided

Indigenous communities tell of harassment, intimidation and corruption among Environment Ministry officials, who are accused of colluding with logging firms to gut Cambodia’s forests

PHNOM PENH–Indigenous communities in Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary and Prey Preah Roka Wildlife Sanctuary are deeply concerned about the gradual loss of forests caused by the deliberate timber trade of private companies, but despite presenting evidence, the government continues to deny that large-scale forest crimes exist and reject the reports of both local activists and Amnesty International.

Srey Thy, a member of the indigenous Kuy community in Chey Saen District, Preah Vihear Province, said that since Prey Lang was invaded by timber companies in 2018, no government intervention has been seen, as the logged timber is seen to be transported from the core area of the Prey Lang every day.

He said that the timber is taken to their depot and will be sold to foreign countries after the authorities stamp the goods ready for export.

“The environmental officials did come to the forest but didn’t prevent the tractors of the companies from entering. They just let them in,” Thy said, who is also a provincial coordinator for the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN).

One of the companies involved, PNT, was granted a 75-year lease on a 7,900-hectare concession in Roveang District, Preah Vihear Province for the development of a rubber plantation in 2010, but Thy said that the company’s true intentions lie in the timber trade.

“The companies entered Prey Lang in 2018 or 2019,” Thy said. “The companies do not grow anything, but they are doing the timber business. The military police officer Chap Saron is involved with the logging scheme.”

The business of PNT company spans across Kampong Thom, Preah Vihear and Stung Treng provinces, he added

Heng Sros, a forest activist who has investigated crimes in Prey Lang, said that deforestation keeps increasing, and in Prey Lang, companies like PNT, Angkor Plywood, Macle Logistics Cambodia and Think Biotech are actively deploying loggers in the forest.

“The worst deforestation occurred in Prey Lang, and the southern part of Kratie is the target of deforestation. Authorities, however, seem to ignore the situation,” he said.

The logged timber will be delivered to the companies and then exported to Vietnam, which will be exported again to the European countries as a Vietnamese product, Sros said, adding that some types of timber are directly exported from Cambodia to China and Hong Kong.

“If the authorities didn’t let them pass, the loggers would not be able to enter the forest to cut down the trees, because each gate is guarded by the environmental officers and the loggers always carry the wood with them,” he said.

International Condemnation

On Jan. 28, Amnesty International issued a report highlighting the impact of illegal logging operations in Prey Lang and Prey Preah Roka on the indigenous Kuy communities who regard the forests as sacred and have long fought to ensure the protected areas remain protected.

The report alleged that corruption among government official facilitated the illegal logging trade, stating that the Ministry of Environment officials were reported to have taken bribes from the traders and loggers.

“Although logging syndicates and agribusiness companies are generally alleged to direct the trade, their illicit activities would not be possible without facilitation by Ministry of Environment rangers and police, who provide protection to loggers and access to protected forests at the local level,” the report said.

Sros said that those companies have to sell their timber to Angkor Plywood before it is transported from Phnom Penh Port to Vietnam via Kaom Somnor at the Cambodia-Vietnam Border.

Currently, the timber is being transported from the Prey Lang area in Preah Vihear Province with PNT and Macle Logistics, while in Kratie Province, the wood is taken by Think Biotech located in Sambor District, he said. Loggers have to pay 150,000 riels—roughly $37.5—per tractor to take timber out of Prey Lang.

Neth Pheaktra, a spokesperson of the Ministry of Environment, has repeatedly claimed that large-scale crimes no longer exist, while small groups of park rangers have been implementing prevention and repression laws on small-scale natural resource crimes.

“The protection and conservation of the forest have improved and the level of the forest degradation has declined,” he said. “Cambodia has been relentlessly protecting and conserving existing natural forests.”

Regarding the corruption allegation, Pheaktra responded to Amnesty International’s report saying that the organization had the intent to defame the entire Ministry of Environment as, he said, it did not provide the exact evidence of those who were engaged in corruption or took bribes.

“If there is clear evidence, the Ministry of Environment will welcome and open an investigation into the case,” he said. “But anonymity suggests that Amnesty International is merely fabricating a report to tarnish Cambodia’s image and seek revenge for its factions in the country who are violating the law and carrying out subversive activities against Cambodia. They take refuge under the label of lovers of the environment and natural resources only.”

So Khorn, a member of the Kuy community living in Sambor District, Kratie Province, said bribery in return for authorities to turn a blind eye to the transport of illegal timber is common. Some loggers must pay the authorities regularly while those who don’t will be arrested.

“The local authorities arrest the loggers and ask them for money before releasing them,” he said. “They sometimes take 2,000,000 riels [$500] from tractors who haven’t paid first. If they don’t pay, their timber will be taken as state property.”

Loss of Livelihoods Linked to Deforestation

Suth Savun, a Kuy indigenous person in Prame Commune, Tbaeng Meanchey District, Preah Vihear Province, said the loss of forest in Prey Preah Roka has affected the traditional way of life for his people, with livelihoods made in tapping resin and harvesting vegetables for food.

Thart Sokhy, also of Prame Commune, said the resin trees that most Kuy people enjoyed and tapped for economic purposes have been destroyed by loggers.

Left with no choice, some groups of Kuy people have joined in logging operations to make enough to survive said Sokhy, but he noted that many were arrested because unlike the loggers who paid bribes to officials, the Kuy loggers did not have the protection or permission of the Ministry of Environment.

“They want to protect the forest but cannot resist the outside forces of the loggers,” he said. “They, therefore, attempt to find a new way to make a living as some have lost their rice land due to the invasion of the sugarcane company in 2013.”

Sokhy added that some Kuy people have considered seeking jobs abroad as, sooner or later, they will no longer be able to depend solely on the forest.

The report from Amnesty International stated that as the Ministry of Environment restricted forest protection activities, illegal logging has put intense pressure on resin trees for the last two years. Kuy people are also having a hard time finding seasonal fruits like Pli Goy and Pli Se Moan, as well as honeycomb, rattan, mushrooms, and vines.

“The loss of such an income source pushed people to migrate in search of work or even to become indebted,” the report said.

Sokhy said the losses of resin and other useful trees, as well as a lack of fruit, will pose a great threat to the Kuy people.

However, Pheaktra of the Environment Ministry said that Amnesty International’s concerns over Kuy community detailed in the report are all politically motivated baseless lies. He did not say how he knew these allegations were lies or specify which allegations he was referring to.

The government has repeatedly accused foreign NGOs of lying for an unnamed political purpose when reports reflect badly on the government, even when said reports appear to be vindicated by the actions of the government.

Community-led Forest Patrols Banned

So Khorn, a member of the Kuy community in Kratie Province, said he and his team are still trying to patrol in Prey Lang in order to document illegal activities, but a strict new ban from the Ministry of Environment that was imposed in 2020 levies harsh punishments for journalists, civil society and community members who attempt to enter Prey Lang.

As such, Khorn said he dare not publish footage publicly or disclose sensitive information due to the possible retaliations from authorities.

“Now, the local authority even arrests journalists who document the logging activity. So, we, the normal citizens, don’t dare to,” he said, adding that his team has to secretly hold meetings to avoid detection.

Despite these challenges, many forest activists continue to enter the protected areas and bring back yet more evidence of illegal logging operations being run by these companies in conjunction with Ministry of Environment rangers and local officials.

“I don’t want to see the forest just gone one day, it will be a great sorrow for the Cambodian people if that happens,” Khorn said.

Prame Commune’s Sokhy said that the Provincial Department of Environment has rejected all their applications for permission to patrol the forests, while Thy—the PLCN coordinator in Preah Vihear Province—reported that the Environment Ministry wanted to co-opt the community network by forcing it to register with the government in order to reduce the criticism it produces.

Thy also noted that the Ministry of Environment rangers have chased the PLCN patrols through the forest, threatening to arrest them on the grounds that their sacred forest is state property.

“We still go to the forest despite the ban because we are committed to protecting the forest although we may face many threats,” he said.

So far, despite the ban on their patrols and the increased legal and physical violence they face, the PLCN has refused to accept the government’s plans.

This is a common theme among environmentalists in Cambodia, with Khorn of Kratie Province also noting that the Environment Ministry only wants to work with communities so it can silence them, restrict their actions and reduce their ability to protect forests.

“The community don’t want to because joining them means that they will draw the circle for us to walk. We cannot do the activities freely. We can’t freely criticize them. We have to do what they told us to. We cannot do that,” he said.

In response, Environment Ministry spokesperson Pheaktra said that there were now eight Kuy communities cooperating with the government in Preah Vihear Province and denied allegations of threats and intimidation.

“They have full freedom to patrol the forest, which is allowed by law, and has resulted in good cooperation from the Ministry of Environment, as well as many benefits from the Ministry of Environment in improving their livelihoods through job creation,” he said.

The Amnesty International report said that Cambodia’s environmental authorities have repressed activists and indigenous people from patrolling the forest while illegal logging and corruption continue unabated.

The restrictions have exacerbated deforestation inmPrey Lang and Prey Preah Roka for the past two years, Amnesty’s report found, noting that indigenous people are also prohibited from carrying out their blessing ceremonies in the forest.

“The de facto ban by the Ministry of Environment on their independent conservation activities was a significant challenge to conservation in their area. […] Armed forest rangers deployed by the Ministry of Environment intercepted, harassed and in some cases temporarily detained members of PLCN, monks and community members seeking to participate in PLCN’s annual tree blessing ceremony. The event was shut down and attendees were physically prevented from entering parts of the Prey Lang protected area,” read the report.

According to Amnesty International at least 6,271 hectares—an area in size equivalent to 8,784 soccer pitches—were deforested across the Prey Lang and Prey Preah Roka protected areas in 2021.

Prey Lang stretches over approximately 500,000 hectares in four provinces—Kampong Thom, Preah Vihear, Kratie and Stung Treng Provinces and is home to more than 250,000 indigenous people.

Prey Preah Roka Wildlife Sanctuary covers 90,000 hectares in Tbaeng Meanchey, Chheb, and Choam Ksan districts, Preah Vihear Province.


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