With the protection of local government officials, pirate timber traders in Cambodia's Steung Treng province are trampling wildlife sanctuaries, exploiting the land and threatening anyone who tries to blow the whistle on their forest crimes, villagers tell RFA’s Khmer service.
Pho Phal, a villager in Anlong Chrey commune in the Thala Borivath district, told RFA’s Khmer service that local authorities and the forestry administration are allowing powerful timber traders to hire workers to exploit thousands of hectares of land.
One trader, named Meas Mith, threatened more than 40 families whose members leaked information about his timber business and farming activities, Pho Phal told RFA. The villager said the forest areas were logged, tilled and some areas paved over, but the authorities took no action to stop the activity.
Another villager confirmed that groups of traders were freely paving and logging areas in the Prey Srong in the Anlong Chrey commune near Steung Treng’s provincial capital. The people living there mostly are Kuoy indigenous people.
Workers were also hired to till in the Phnom Mlou area and have exploited those areas since 2013 with no action from the government, the villager said. According to the villagers, workers earn 35,000 riel (about U.S. $100) to till and pave a hectare of land.
After the trees are felled and the land tilled, the traders grow cash crops like mangos and tapioca to increase the value of the property. They use villagers’ names to get temporary land titles from the authorities and sell the land to buyers for a tidy profit.
Meas Mith told the villagers they would be arrested and jailed if they dared to leak information about illegal logging and other activities in the area, Pho Phal told RFA.
“He (Meas Mith) paved the forest lands and turned them into fields and then he sells them at $2,000 per hectare,” he said. “That’s why he threatened us. If we dare to act as if we know anything about it, he wouldn’t allow us to live with safety and security. Nearly all of the institutions in the area are all on his side.”
A sense of loss
Other villagers expressed their sorrow for the loss of the forest, but felt powerless to stop the devastation.
“As a villager, I felt sorry for the forest areas that were lost,” Chhean Sophea said. “I don’t know what to do in order to preserve them. We are just ordinary villagers, and we can’t stop them, or this powerful man.”
Attempts by RFA to contact Meas Mith failed.
Anlong Chrey commune chief Prum Ya said he reported Meas Mith’s activities to the relevant officials, but they failed to take action.
“I have reported this to the upper levels to make clear that I have not been involved,” he said. “All the land [Meas Mith] has, should be inspected by authorities, then he can just cultivate or do things he wants on land that has been identified as his.”
Ho Sam Ol, a forest activist with ADHOC, urged the government to take action and not just to make a show.
“If the investigation finds that he has been logging illegally in the forest lands, then Meas Mith should be arrested,” he said. “We need to work according to the law.”
Cambodian authorities are notorious for using their offices to protect or benefit their friends, or to make a show of enforcing crimes by going after the poor or powerless because they are easy to catch, he said.
On 15 Feb. 2016, authorities went on to inspect the Phnom Sek Sor area and Mlou commune area, but have yet to take action.
In 2015, however, a member of communal council from the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party was sent to prison on charges that he was tilling the forest lands and growing crops on one hectare. The conviction is being on appealed.
“That is not the way to go,” he said. “We must together rush to eliminate the culture of impunity. Anyone who is wrong is wrong!”
Cambodian law makes it a crime punishable by up to two years in prison and a maximum 10,000 riel fine for government authorities to intervene directly or indirectly in any forest businesses
Cambodia has one of the worst deforestation rates in the world. According to estimates by the environmental groups, the country's deforestation of roughly one percent a year between 2000 and 2012 gives it the fourth or fifth highest deforestation rate among major forest countries
Illegal logging, combined with the conversion of forests for commercial agricultural are blamed for much of Cambodia’s forest loss.
While Prime Minister Hun Sen set up a committee to stop the smuggling of timber across the border to Vietnam, there are questions about how serious he is about stopping the pirate logging outfits in particular and deforestation in Cambodia in general.
The power of oknhas
Civil society officials worry that those involved, especially the oknhas, will avoid prosecution because they have powerful backers. Oknhas are generally powerful businessmen who pay a large donation for the honorific title.
Ouch Leng, chairman of the Cambodia Human Rights Task Force, criticized the effort, saying it has yet to bear fruit even though a number of oknhas were identified as owners of illegally cut lumber and own the warehouses where wood logs and timbers are stored.
“The facts are: They have money. They have power, and they have a strong, thick backbone of powerful people to back them up,” he said. “Even Gen. Sao Sokha, [head of the committee] didn’t dare to investigate.”
National Military Police spokesman Eng Hy counseled patience, saying investigations that he could not detail are on-going. If the oknhas are involved in the forest crimes, they will be prosecuted, he said.
“We are building the case,” he said. “The prosecutors are accusing a number [of criminals] gradually – a number of companies are involved.”
Ouch Leng isn’t waiting for the government to take action as the Cambodia Human Rights Task Force is preparing reports identifying nearly 4,000 people, including government officials, soldiers and oknhas involved in the forest crimes in Cambodia.
Hun Sen’s effort to preserve Cambodia’s fast-dwindling woodlands is also being criticized for its selection of areas that will be set aside.
A forest with few trees
On Feb. 10 Hun Sen designated nearly 200 hectares in the Tbong Khmum province for preservation, but local residents say the area has few trees and the government’s decree could prevent them from farming the area like they have since the French colonial era.
Cambodian government officials are hoping to convince local villagers that naming the Ponhea Krek Forest a protected area and a wildlife sanctuary will sustain the forest and their way of life.
“This is the only way to increase the protection of the forest,” Ly Leng, the Tbong Khmum provincial deputy governor, told RFA’s Khmer service. “The villagers in the area should value the land and this will keep it from becoming a target which can be abused by anyone in the area.”
The sub-decree is aimed at preventing ecological abuses by banning tilling, paving and illegal logging or earth moving in the area. While the government order looks like an attempt to tame some environmental abuses, it could also prevent local farmers from cultivating the land as they have done for generations.
Kim Ly, chief of Krek commune, and Hem Yieb, chief of Trapaing Phlong commune, cast doubt on the sub-decree, stressing there was not thick forest or substantial wildlife in the now-protected area.
“It is a kind of sparse woods. There are only . . . four or five big trees,” Yieb told The Phenom Penh Post.“I think that the government wants to protect the area, but local people still have their doubts. They want to use that area for farming as they have before.”
The selection of Ponhea Krek shows how far the government’s priorities are out of order, Ouch Leng said.
“The government should pay attention to the large forest areas that the illegal loggers are logging,” he told RFA.”The rich and the powerful behind the illegal logging activities should be searched out and brought to justice.”
Reported by Sothy Men and Sokheng Sout for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Pagnawath Khun. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.