Villagers in a forest community in northeastern Cambodia’s Stung Treng province have accused local forestry officials of colluding with illegal loggers to clear trees in a designated wildlife sanctuary so they can sell the timber for personal profit.
The residents of Chhvang village, Sam’ang commune in the province’s Thala Barivat district told RFA’s Khmer Service on Monday that a number of business groups have been felling trees in a local wildlife sanctuary with the blessing of local authorities.
Workers hired by the groups have been felling and cutting logs in the area for several months, but authorities have not prevented the illegal activity, they said.
The four to six worker groups, with four to six people each, stay in tents in the forest while they cut down trees to generate money for deputy community chief Phoeuk Si and two others surnamed Pheap and Luon, the villagers said.
A villager from the ethnic Kuoy minority group, who spoke on condition of anonymity, voiced concern over the inability of authorities to prevent forest crimes in the area, noting that a number of wildlife animal sanctuaries are under the control of private individuals.
He accused Moeung Ratha, a district commune council member, and Nhean Phorn, the wildlife sanctuary community chief, of being the masterminds behind the illegal activities.
“Now wild animals are running away, [because the forest] has been destroyed,” the villager said. “Because [they] probably conspired to cut down the hardwood trees, each about a meter in diameter, known as chheu teal. [And] when they can sell them, they gather to have parties to celebrate.”
The wood from chheu teal trees is used in construction and cabinet-making, while its resin is used for lacquering wood, draft-proofing boats and producing traditional medicine.
Under the protection of armed forces, the workers have felled trees on 10-40 hectares (25-99 acres) of land in the O’Chhkot and Trapaing Snuol areas and hundreds of hectares in the Phnom Kol Rol area, the villager said.
They have used chainsaws to level community forests in other areas almost every day, he added.
After they cut down the trees, they fence in the areas and file paperwork to get temporary ownership titles for the land, he said.
“I and my people reported it to the commune chief, but nothing has come of it,” he said. “They didn’t do anything, and we just reported to the wrong people who are part of the groups.”
‘No one selling timber’
RFA could not reach Moeung Ratha or the three commune deputy chiefs on Monday to respond to the accusations.
Nhean Phorn, the wildlife sanctuary community chief who is the younger brother of the chief of Sam'ang commune, denied that the community forests were wildlife sanctuaries.
He said that authorities took care of the community forests, and community members patrolled them on a regular basis.
“I have patrolled the forests for several months now, and there has been no one selling timber,” Nhean Phorn told RFA. “Anyone who takes over community forests will be sent to court.”
The community forests in Chhvang village, which cover 4,446 hectares (11,000 acres) of land, were officially recognized by Stung Treng officials recognized as wildlife sanctuaries in early 2015.
Community officials had requested that national authorities register the area as a “cooperative mountainous community forest which is a sanctuary for wild animals,” but they received no response.
Ho Samol, an official from the domestic rights group Adhoc, who is based in Stung Treng, said Nhean Phorn would ultimately be responsible for any illegal logging activities.
Local authorities ould face legal action if it is discovered that they were the masterminds behind the deforestation, he said.
High-ranking officials have backed deforestation activities in five districts of Stung Treng province, he said.
“Authorities lack the will to prevent deforestation activities and assume no responsibility for protecting the forests.” Ho Samol said. “On the other hand, … we have all their names [and ] know who they sold the trees to and where they sold them.”
On Dec. 29, Minister of Interior Sar Kheng urged Mom Saroeun, the newly appointed governor of Stung Treng province, to strengthen the mechanisms for preventing deforestation while relevant authorities review the matter.
Cambodia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, largely due to illegal logging.
A report issued last year by the U.K. environmental rights group Global Witness found that government and military officials collude with businessmen to illegally cut and transport Cambodian timber mainly to China.
Reported by Men Chanthy for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Pagnawath Khun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.