Environmental activists patrolling Prey Lang forest in Cambodia’s central plains said Thursday that authorities interfered with their work and even tried to arrest them after they documented a local company conducting extensive illegal logging in the protected area.
A group known as Lovers of the Environment, which is mostly comprised of youth activists, launched a campaign on Wednesday to drive their motorbikes through Prey Lang’s wildlife sanctuary areas of O’Anamai, O’Romany, O’Krak, O’Sgnuot, and Red Mountain over the course of five days to monitor for illegal logging activities.
Heng Sros, one of the group’s campaigners, told RFA’s Khmer Service on Thursday that over the course of just two days he saw “hundreds of people” in the forest illegally cutting down old-growth trees and transporting them to sawmills run by Think-Biotech Co., Ltd. on the outskirts of Prey Lang, where they were processed and sold for around U.S. $225 per cubic meter.
Meanwhile, felled logs lay unprocessed and awaiting transport throughout the areas the group monitored, he said.
But while Lovers of the Environment worked to document the illegal logging, according to Heng Sros, local authorities followed the group throughout the forest closely watching its activities and seemingly working in conjunction with forestry officials to try to arrest its members.
“The authorities not only didn’t stop the illegal loggers, but they tried to stop our activities and attempted to arrest us, even though we are defenders of the environment who have been working hard and sacrificing our lives to prevent Cambodia’s forests from disappearing,” he said.
“They should be ashamed. The authorities must guarantee that no one can cut down the supposedly ‘protected forest’ areas of Prey Lang.”
In two days, he said his group located “more than 2,000 felled old-growth logs” in five different locations that it documented with photos and video—most of which are resin-producing trees that local residents rely on for their livelihood.
“We were looking specifically for giant trees aged hundreds of years old,” he said, adding that hired workers “used 100–200 trucks to transport the logs.”
“I interviewed the workers and they told me that they transport the logs to sell to Think-Biotech Co., Ltd. They said if they didn’t sell the logs to Think-Biotech, the authorities and forestry officials would seize them and they would have to pay a fine.”
Heng Sros suggested that authorities are “receiving bribes” from Think-Biotech to shadow his group and threaten them with arrest.
‘Protect our remaining forests’
Repeated calls by RFA seeking comment on Heng Sros’s claims from Commission of National Prevention and Suppression Against Forest Crime spokesperson Eng Hy and Agriculture Ministry spokesperson Srey Vudh went unanswered Thursday.
However, Ministry of Environment spokesperson Neth Pheaktra told RFA that while it is the right of Lovers of the Environment to carry out their campaign, “the ministry [only] supports a properly registered nongovernmental organization conducting activities to protect natural resources,” suggesting the group should have first asked for permission to enter the forest from local authorities or the Interior Ministry.
Internationally-recognized environmental activist Leng Ouch, who is chairman of local watchdog Cambodian Human Rights Task Force and a member of the campaign against forest crimes, told RFA that members of his group are willing to lay down their lives to protect the country’s forests, which he called “the natural heritage of our ancestors.”
He appealed to all government authorities and members of the armed forces to protect the country’s remaining forests.
“We are not involved in any struggle or revolution for power—all we really want is to preserve and protect our remaining forests,” he said.
“We aren’t doing this for our own interests, but the [authorities] are taking action against us.”
Think-Biotech did not respond to repeated calls for comment on Thursday.
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 Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) found that the area lost 56 square kilometers (22 square miles) of forest in 2017 alone.
In late February, masked, armed rangers deployed by the Ministry of Environment blocked hundreds of community members, monks, and environmental activists from entering parts of Prey Lang to join an annual tree-blessing ceremony organized by the PLCN to promote conservation efforts against deforestation.
Last week, Ida Theilade of the University of Copenhagen’s Faculty of Science, issued a statement saying that documentation compiled by PLCN that corresponds with satellite imagery from the EU Joint Research Centre and Global Land Analysis & Discovery (GLAD) - University of Maryland showed “increased illegal logging within the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary” in recent months.
Based on weekly satellite imagery at a 30-meter (100-foot) resolution, GLAD issued approximately 1,000 forest loss alerts for Prey Lang per week since the beginning of 2020, Theilade said, noting that during one week at the end of February, when the Ministry of Environment controlled access to the forest, “the number of forest loss alerts spiked to more than 11,000.”
“We are concerned that the PLCN tree blessing ceremony was banned due to government sanctioned illegal logging of protected resin trees in the area,” the statement said.
“PLCN is still banned from entering the forest and is currently unable to conduct patrols and collect data on forest crimes, biodiversity and climate change. PLCN members can only watch as illegal loggers freely enter Prey Lang and convoys of trucks transport timber out of the forest.”
Anniversary of slaying
Also on Thursday, Cheuy Oudom Reaksmey, the son of slain Cambodian environmental activist Chut Wutty, told RFA his family plans to hold an event in Prey Lang forest on Sunday to commemorate the 8th anniversary of his father’s still-unsolved murder.
Shot to death on April 26, 2012 while investigating illegal logging in Koh Kong’s Mondul Seima district, Chut Wutty had been active in organizing communities to protect Cambodian forests against land grabs. He had also campaigned against the government’s granting of land concessions in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.
During the commemoration ceremony, Chut Wutty’s family will demand justice from authorities as his killers have yet to be brought to justice, Cheuy Oudom Reaksmey said. They also plan to launch a social media campaign to remind the public about the activist’s work and sacrifice.
An official investigation into Chut Wutty’s death was closed in October 2013 when a court in Koh Kong province abruptly ended its proceedings, prompting Cheuy Oudom Reaksmey to vow at the time to continue to fight for justice in his father’s case.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sokry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.