Indigenous villagers in northeastern Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province fear they will be displaced from their communal forest following illegal logging that rights groups say has reduced natural water supplies in the area.
In Ratanakiri’s Lumphat district, some 50 hectares (120 acres) of forest used by indigenous villagers around Kunthy mountain has been cleared of trees, investigators from local rights group ADHOC said after visiting the forest late last month.
Villagers fear the area has been logged in preparation for it to be sold to land speculators, raising concerns that all of the 600 hectares (1,480 acres) of communal forest could also be logged and sold.
Some 150 villagers signed a petition delivered to the Ratanakiri Forestry Administration in late January that called for a stop to further logging in their area.
Sun Lek, a villager in Tapang, among the areas in Lumphat hit by illegal logging, urged forestry officials to investigate the illicit activities and prevent speculators from buying land allocated to indigenous groups, which under Cambodia’s land and forestry laws have the right to use local forests for their livelihood.
“They almost destroyed our forest. There is only a little left, and we need to protect it,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service. “About 600 hectares of land will be destroyed.”
He said the village chief has threatened to arrest anyone who dares to file complaints against local authorities over the illegal activities, which villagers suspect are stoked by government corruption.
ADHOC's Ratanakiri investigator Chhay Thy said he believes local authorities were linked to the illegal logging in Lumphat which had been carried out with modern equipment.
Local villagers were likely to lose the 50 hectares that had been logged to speculators who buy up land in the remote province to sell to private developers, he said.
“We are very concerned. There is a movement to persuade the villagers to sell their land,” he said. “We are facing the loss of 50 hectares of land.”
Tapang village chief Tit Chheng rejected claims that local authorities were involved in any deals with land speculators in the area.
Deputy Provincial Forestry Department director Phann Phin welcomed the villagers’ filing their complaint, saying it would help authorities investigate illegal logging.
“When they shed some light on the problem it is easier for us to investigate,” he told RFA.
Water supplies drying up
Local rights groups, including ADHOC and NGO Forum, have long raised concerns that indigenous communities in Ratanakiri and neighboring Mondulkiri province have not been consulted when land deals are made between the government and private companies, which often resulting in trees being cleared to make way for new projects.
Under Cambodia’s forestry laws, indigenous communities have the right to use forests they have traditionally relied upon for collecting forest products such as dead wood and resin, as well as to continue using water resources such as streams and rivers in the forest.
After years of losing forest to illegal logging and land deals in Ratanakiri, indigenous communities in Ratanakiri have seen their natural water supply sources shrink as the lack of trees reduces the content of water in the soil and the atmosphere, Chhay Thy said.
"We have noticed that water sources like river tributaries and ponds have dried out across the province," he said.
"Some of the natural water resources that indigenous communities used to rely on have dried up due the destruction of the forest.”
The province once had a uniform climate, but now it can be separated into three climate zones because of the havoc wreaked on the local ecosystem, he said.
Green groups have said illegal logging and rapid economic and population growth have driven deforestation in Cambodia, which has one of the fastest deforestation rates in the world.
A global study by U.S. researchers at the University of Maryland that was published in December found Cambodia had lost more than 7 percent of its forest cover between 2000 and 2012, the fifth-fastest rate in the world.
Since 1973, the country’s forest cover has fallen from around 72 percent to about 46 percent, according to a series of maps using NASA images released in December by local nongovernment organization Open Development Cambodia.
Reported by Sok Ratha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.