US Cuts Funding to Cambodia’s Prey Lang Forest, Citing Government Failure to Protect the Land

Cambodian authorities arrest activists trying to stop illegal logging and other forest crime.
2021-06-17
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US Cuts Funding to Cambodia’s Prey Lang Forest, Citing Government Failure to Protect the Land Environmental activists document illegal logging in Cambodia's Prey Lang forest, April 22, 2020.
Lovers of the Environment

The United States has cut aid to Cambodian government wildlife and environmental conservation programs, citing the government’s failure to defend protected areas, especially from illegal logging, the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh said on Thursday.

Working through the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. has already invested more than $100 million to combat deforestation in the Prey Lang Wildlife Santuary and other vulnerable areas, the Embassy said in a June 17 statement.

“Unfortunately, the situation is worsening,” the Embassy said.

“Well-documented illegal logging continues in and around the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, and Cambodian authorities have not adequately prosecuted wildlife crimes or put a stop to these illegal activities.”

“In addition, the government continues to silence and target local communities and their civil society partners who are justifiably concerned about the loss of their natural resources,” the Embassy said.

Support formerly given to Cambodian government entities under the USAID Greening Prey Lang project will now be redirected to support “civil society, the private sector, and local efforts to improve livelihoods and expand climate sensitive agriculture,” the Embassy said in its statement.

Speaking to RFA in response, Cambodian Ministry of Environment spokesperson Neth Peaktra said the end of U.S. funding for the Prey Lang program shows that the ministry and its officials are able to protect the forest on their own, and that U.S. help is not needed.

“The Ministry of Environment will continue its mission responsibly and professionally to protect Prey Lang and other protected areas to preserve them for future generations,” he said, adding that while forest crimes continue in the preserve, no large-scale crimes have recently been reported.

Cambodian authorities continue to intimidate forest activists to discourage them from monitoring crime in protected areas, however, Prey Lang activist Hoeun Sopheap told RFA. The government has failed in its duty to protect the land, he said.

“I think that the U.S. Embassy made the right decision, because the aid given [by the U.S.] to the government and the Ministry of Environment has failed to be of any help,” he said. “We have seen our natural resources declining in spite of foreign aid. It hasn’t helped preserve protected areas.”

Crackdown against activists

Cambodia has staged a crackdown against environmental activists and local people who try to protect community forest lands.

Last month the Phnom Penh Municipal Court handed five Mother Nature environmental group activists 20-month jail sentences and U.S. $1,000 fines for “inciting serious social unrest,” and “conspiracy to incitement.”

Three environmental activists arrested this week in Phnom Penh are now being charged with conspiracy under Article 453 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code, while the whereabouts of a fourth activist arrested later in Kandal province are still unknown, rights groups and other sources said.

Members of the Mother Nature Sun Ratha, Seth Chhiv Limeng, and Ly Chandarvuth were taken into custody by police after filming sewage in a river near the Royal Palace, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights said in a June 16 statement.

“It is inappropriate to charge activists with criminal offenses, because they don’t compete with the government for power or run a political party. They only want to protect the environment,” fellow activist Sann Mala told RFA.

Sun Samnang, brother of the arrested activist Sun Ratha, said he does not yet know where his sister is being held. “I’m looking for that information now,” he said.

Reached for comment, Phnom Penh Municipality Police spokesperson San Sokseiha denied any knowledge of the arrests, saying, “For the past few days, we haven’t arrested anyone.”

A March 26 report by the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime found that Cambodia had lost nearly 1.5 million acres, or nearly 12 percent, of forest coverage in the country’s protected areas between 2011 and 2018.

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

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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