Green Group Records 100 Cases of Illegal Logging in Protected Cambodian Forest in Three Days

The discoveries follow a report which found Cambodia had lost 12 percent of forest coverage in protected areas between 2011 and 2018.
Green Group Records 100 Cases of Illegal Logging in Protected Cambodian Forest in Three Days The site of a forest crime in Cambodia's Preah Roka Wildlife Sanctuary in Preah Vihear province, March 2021.

An environmental watchdog group in Cambodia has recorded at least 100 cases of illegal logging in the country’s protected Preah Roka Wildlife Sanctuary over the course of just three days, prompting it to call on the government to strengthen enforcement and allow activists to carry out forest patrols unmolested.

The Cambodian Youth Network (CYN) said in a news release that it had undertaken a 55-kilometer (34-mile) patrol of the Preah Roka Wildlife Sanctuary in the Preah Vihear province districts of Choam Ksan, Tbeng Meanchey, and Cheb from March 19-21, during which it recorded the 100 cases, mostly of rare and priceless timber.

The logging included trees with cross-sections ranging from 45 centimeters (18 inches) to 1.5 meters (five feet) in areas of dense and semi-dense forest, and species such as Teal, Steang, Phteak, Popeal, Pechek, Odom, Korki, and Sokrom, the group said. In addition to targeting individual trees, perpetrators also burned and cleared certain areas of the forest, it said.

Ma Chetra, a senior media official with the CYN, called the forest crimes “recent,” but said those responsible had yet to be identified.

He expressed concern for the sanctuary because the Ministry of Environment has prevented his group from carrying out patrols, which is when the forest crimes took place.

“When [the Ministry of Environment] stopped us, it was of no benefit to the ministry,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.

“There is no loss in letting us patrol the forest, but it is the nation that will lose by banning us from entering the forest because trees in protected areas are being cut down.”

Ma Chetra urged the government to do a better job of policing the sanctuary and other protected areas in Cambodia.

“Even if we or the Ministry of Environment patrol the forest from time to time, it won’t be enough to stop deforestation,” he said.

“The only way to end the deforestation is to strictly enforce the law against perpetrators or those behind the crimes. If we want forest crimes to be prevented in Cambodia, the authorities must apply the law to those who trade in the trees.”

Ministry of Environment spokesman Neth Peaktra refused to respond to the findings of the CYN, calling the group “not a lawful cooperative partner” with the ministry.

He acknowledged that forest crimes do take place but called them small in number. Neth Peaktra added that any group is welcome to enter the forest, provided that it registers with the ministry ahead of time.

Preah Roka Wildlife Sanctuary was designated by the Ministry of Environment as a 96,000-hectare (237,220-acre) conservation forest in 2016. Environmental activists say that the sanctuary has been subject to illegal logging operations for years, but that authorities have failed to take effective measures to prevent its destruction.

CYN called on the Ministry of Environment to end restrictions on local communities, forest activists, associations, civil society organizations and the public from participating in patrolling, protecting, conserving and maintaining the forest, in accordance with the provisions on the rights and duties of citizens, as specified in Cambodia’s constitution and the Law on Protection of Nature.

Activists with Lovers of the Environment document illegal logging in Cambodia's Prey Lang forest, April 22, 2020. Lovers of the Environment

Deforestation report

CYN’s call to action followed the March 26 release of a new report by the Geneva-based G​l​ob​a​l​ ​Initiative ​Against​ ​Trans​national​ ​Organize​d​ ​Crime, which found that Cambodia lost nearly 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres), or nearly 12 percent, of forest coverage in the country’s protected areas between 2011 and 2018.

The group said that such deforestation disproportionately impacts indigenous communities that rely on the collection of non-timber forest products.

Thousands of trees were illegally destroyed in Preah Roka Wildlife Sanctuary and Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary in Kratie province and processed for export during the period, according to the report, which also found that deforestation in Cambodia had continued at an all-time high for the past decade.

The deforestation is a result of Cambodia’s government investing in economic land concessions for private companies, granting social land concessions, and “re-forestation projects,” which the G​l​ob​a​l​ ​Initiative ​Against​ ​Trans​national​ ​Organize​d​ ​Crime said are granted to investors who typically convert land into profitable monoculture plantations that destroy the ecology of forests and impact local populations.

Forest protection activist San Mala told RFA that the report shows the government must strengthen its protection of the country’s remaining forest and said economic land concessions adjacent to protected forests are often responsible for deforestation.

“The government should accept the report to study, research and re-evaluate past projects to determine their positive and negative aspects,” he said. “What should be improved or strengthened, or what it should keep implementing.”

Ministry of Environment spokesman Neth Pheaktra told RFA via social media that his ministry would not comment on the report.

He said the ministry will continue to “enforce the law” and implement action plans in collaboration with community partners in protected areas for the purpose of protecting and conserving forest resources and wildlife.

The G​l​ob​a​l​ ​Initiative ​Against​ ​Trans​national​ ​Organize​d​ ​Crime is a network of more than 500 experts from around the world who jointly researched the deforestation situation in Cambodia between 2018 and 2020.

The experts documented their findings by visiting the sites for several weeks at a time, during which they met with locals and loggers to locate illegal logging. They use GPS and smartphones to record illegal logging activities, as well as drones to document large-scale logging in protected forests.

An illegally felled old-growth tree in Prey Lang forest, April 22, 2020. Lovers of the Environment

Forest crime suspect granted bail

The two forestry reports came as civil society groups and indigenous Phnong villagers criticized the Mondulkiri provincial court Friday for granting bail to military officer Touch Hoeun, who is accused of being the ringleader of a group of people who destroyed 53 hectares (131 acres) of indigenous Pou Treng village community forest last week.

An indigenous villager named Kroeung Tola told RFA that Touch Hoeun is regularly involved in the destruction of community and public forests. He said his community has enough evidence and documentation to prove Touch Hoeun committed the crime, and that the court’s decision was unjust.

“Touch Hoeun has been involved in many scandals in the province,” he said.

Last week, more than 40 villagers stopped Touch Hoeun’s tractors from destroying the community forest and local authorities arrested him for allegedly faking documents granting him permission to raze the land.

RFA was unable to reach provincial prosecutor Morm Vanda or Touch Hoeun for comment on Friday.

However, court spokesman Meas Bros told RFA that the public is welcome to appeal the decision.

“Please refer questions to the judge, because there must be a reason for his release,” he said.

Pen Bunna, senior land and natural resources officer for local rights group Adhoc also criticized the court’s decision calling it a “double standard.”

“This is a culture of impunity,” he said, adding that the court is regularly quick to punish the poor, but often delays cases against the wealthy and well-connected.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum and Samean Yun.

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