A group of more than 100 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and activist communities in Cambodia expressed dismay Tuesday over the government blocking an annual tree-blessing ceremony at Prey Lang forest in the country’s central plains.
Over the weekend, masked, armed rangers deployed by the Ministry of Environment blocked hundreds of community members, monks, and environmental activists from entering parts of Prey Lang protected area to join a ceremony organized by the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) to promote conservation efforts against deforestation.
In a statement on Tuesday, the PLCN said it was “outraged and appalled” at the restrictions on the ceremony, which it has held for several years, and which it notified authorities about in advance.
“In the past, we were able to enter the forest freely to do our activities and protect the forest,” said Houen Sopheap, a PLCN representative in Kampong Thom province.
“But recently, it has become harder and harder, and the ministry has placed more restrictions on our actions.”
According to the PLCN, the Ministry of Environment wrote in a Facebook post after blocking the group that Article 11 of the Protected Areas Law prohibits any person’s entry into a protected area without permission.
The group noted that Article 11 refers to areas that have been zoned, and that only the most protected of four types of zones—the “core zone”—requires permission to enter. But while Prey Lang was labeled a Protected Area in 2016, none of the forest has been zoned, despite calls from conservation groups to do so because of the added protection against deforestation such a designation would carry.
The ministry’s post also referred to Cambodia’s Law on Associations and NGOs (LANGO), which the PLCN said validated concerns raised by more than 100 communities and civil society groups earlier this month in a statement urging the government to repeal the law due to it being overly broad and subject to abuse.
“Despite past assurances from the Interior Ministry that LANGO would not be used to hinder activities of grassroots groups, the Ministry of Environment used it as a justification to prohibit the legitimate conservation activities of the PLCN,” the group said in Tuesday’s statement.
“Using LANGO to prevent community members from blessing trees in a protected forest again demonstrates how harmful the legislation is in its current form.”
The PLCN quoted Am Sam Ath, deputy director of monitoring at local rights group LICADHO, as saying that the use of LANGO against its group is “highly restrictive and legally inappropriate.”
“This grassroots community network must be allowed to conduct its conservation activities free from harassment and intimidation,” he said.
The Ministry of Environment in its post also accused the PLCN of presenting data that lacked scientific basis and “documenting exaggerated reports” in its conservation work, but the group maintained that it “consistently produces evidence-based research” showing deforestation in Prey Lang, which it called on the government to utilize, rather than reject.
“We know from experience that dedicated, grassroots community groups such as the PLCN are the most effective at preserving protected forests,” the group said.
“We strongly encourage the Ministry of Environment to embrace its own call for people to protect natural resources, and to stop opposing the activities, rejecting the research, and intimidating the members of the PLCN.”
Forest under attack
Prey Lang has been ravaged by deforestation caused by illegal logging, with much of the illicit timber smuggled outside the country. In a report released last year, the PLCN found that the area lost 56 square kilometers (22 square miles) of forest in 2017 alone.
In prior tree-blessing ceremonies, monks and activists have wrapped cloth representing traditional Buddhist garb around trees under the belief that the loggers, who may themselves be Buddhists, would think twice about cutting them down.
Activists also use the Buddhist ceremony to pray for the forest’s future, so that indigenous identity can be preserved.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Tuesday, Ministry of Environment spokesman Neth Pheaktra said authorities had stopped activists from entering Prey Lang over the weekend because the government had not authorized forest patrols.
“The Prey Lang activists’ actions were unauthorized and their network was set up illegally,” he said.
The Ministry of Environment also responded to Tuesday’s statement with a statement of its own, posted to Facebook, which said it had cooperated with activists for several years, but that the PLCN has since been “dishonest and created chaos with exaggerated reports.”
The statement quoted Neth Pheaktra as saying that the ministry acknowledges that forest crimes occur in Prey Lang, but that they are “small in scale.”
The PLCN’s Hoeun Sopheap told RFA that NGOs have been able to patrol the forest freely for several years, and were only recently blocked from entering the area by the Ministry of Environment.
“The Prime Minister [Hun Sen] and Minister of Environment [Say Sam Al] should investigate the actions of local officials,” he said.
“Those officials are colluding with criminals to commit forest crimes … If the forest crimes are not stopped, the protected area will be destroyed.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.