The Prey Lang Community Network has alleged that the Environment Ministry’s attempts to protect the forest, even conduct tree blessing ceremonies, was a ruse to distract from the rampant illegal logging occurring in the protected Prey Lang forest.
The Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) released a report in collaboration with researchers at the University of Copenhagen on February 27, showing an increase in deforestation in 2019, the most after the devastating levels of logging in 2016 when the forest was designated a wildlife sanctuary.
The report alleges that the Ministry of Environment’s efforts to block community patrols were only exacerbating the loss of the Prey Lang forest, one of Southeast Asia’s last lowland evergreen forests.
“Since the Ministry of Environment banned PLCN from patrolling, loggers are freely entering the forest to cut down luxury trees and transport timber out of the forest by paying a commission fee to the rangers at the checkpoints,” read the report.
In 2020, the Environment Ministry banned the PLCN from entering the protected forest when the community and civil society groups wanted to conduct the annual tree blessing ceremony.
The PLCN also alleged that USAID, which funds the multimillion-dollar “Greening Prey Lang” project, tacitly approved the de-legitimization of the community. The Environment Ministry would routinely involve PLCN in stakeholder discussions and workshops before the USAID project started, according to the report.
Since February 2020, the PLCN said it observed increased use of hand-made guns and traps to catch wildlife, forest clearing in the buffer and core zones of the sanctuary, and timber transportation and equipment crossing checkpoints every day.
Resin and other large trees were being felled within the forest by Think Biotech Co. Ltd., Thy Nha Co. Ltd., Development and Investment and PNT.
Srey Thei, a PLCN representative in Preah Vihear province, said it was unfortunate that the Ministry of Environment again prevented the group from holding their tress blessing ceremony this year. He said the ban on PLCN patrols resulted in increased logging.
“I regret that our community that has guarded [the forest] for about 20 years have been accused of being illegal,” Thei said.
“Even if we just take a look along the road [we] see [vehicles] carrying timber every day,” he said.
In mid-February, the Environment Ministry held the “We Love Prey Lang” event where they blessed trees inside the sanctuary with participants posting photos and selfies from within the forest on social media.
Apart from blocking other patrols, the Environment Ministry has also arrested forest activists entering the forest to document illegal logging or prevent deforestation. In early February, they arrested five forest campaigners for documenting the destruction of resin trees by Think Biotech inside the sanctuary.
Environment activist Heng Sros, who was one of the five arrested activists, said the Environment Ministry was protecting illegal loggers who were destroying the forest in Prey Lang, rather than protect the forest.
“When the ministry has banned communities for entering Prey Lang this is an activity hiding illegal logging, by not allowing the community to take pictures where logging is occurring,” Sros said.
The activists’ accusations were also backed up by a report released by Amnesty International, which used satellite imagery to illustrate how new paths and roads weaving through the sanctuary were aiding deforestation.
Using University of Maryland data, Amnesty said Prey Lang lost 7,511 hectares of tree cover in 2019, an increase of 73 percent compared to the previous year.
“The Cambodian authorities must allow these environmental defenders to resume their patrols and carry out their vital work preventing further destruction of one of the world’s most important rainforests, which is disappearing before our eyes,” said Richard Pearshouse, head of Crisis and the Environment at Amnesty International.
Environment Ministry Spokesperson Neth Pheaktra refuted all accusations made by both Amnesty International and Prey Lang Community Work, calling their work anti-government and ill-intentioned.
He said the two groups had diseased egos and were malicious in their activities.
“Please do not have this disease of ego in the field of environment and natural resources, I don’t have this character disease like you,” Pheaktra said. “Some civil society groups and political activists shelter under the label of environmental lovers.”
Pheatkra said the PLCN report was done by “foreigners,” even though it uses data from the group, and was not reflective of ministry rangers’ efforts to curb illegal logging.
In 2020, the Environment Ministry’s rangers and community, which is supported by USAID, reported 1,019 offenses, of which 47 cases were sent to the court. Authorities and rangers seized 481 chainsaws, 116 homemade trucks, and 117 homemade guns, and confiscated 275 cubic meters of timber.
Hoeun Sopheap, another PLCN member from Kampong Thom province, said that the Environment Ministry has discriminated against and targeted the group by not allowing the community to protect the forest.
“I think it has restricted the rights, religious freedoms of the Prey Lang community to hold a ceremony blessing trees every year,” Sopheap said. “Our activities are to reduce logging with the government.”
Heng Kimhong, a program manager for research and advocacy at Cambodia Youth Network, said the group was also prevented from patrolling the forest in Preah Vihear province despite being registered with the Interior Ministry.
“I think the Environment Ministry has the intention to show the public there is no logging in Prey Lang areas,” he said. “Why is the law used to ban a person who has the intention to protect the forest?”