NGOs on Tuesday criticized the Environment Ministry for its actions to block community members from entering the Prey Lang protected forests.
“Masked armed rangers” prevented Prey Lang Community Network members from conducting an annual tree-blessing ceremony over the weekend, according to a joint statement by 103 communities and organizations.
In a Facebook post on Feb. 22, the ministry accused the network of “illegal acts” and “documenting exaggerated reports,” claiming that protected areas require permission from authorities to access.
The joint statement, signed by the network as well as rights groups Licadho and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, contested the ministry’s claims, saying the Prey Lang protected area had yet to be zoned after its designation in 2016 — despite encouragement from conservation groups.
Only the most protected of the four zone types requires permission from the ministry to enter, it said.
“We, the undersigned, are outraged and appalled at the restrictions placed on hundreds of community members, monks and environmental activists who were prevented by authorities from entering parts of Prey Lang protected area over the weekend,” the statement said.
“We care deeply about Cambodia’s forests, which have rapidly disappeared over the past several decades. We know from experience that dedicated, grassroots community groups such as the PLCN are the most effective at preserving protected forests.”
A Prey Lang Community Network representative from Kampong Thom province, Minh Ny, said it was hard to understand the ministry’s decision when illegal logging was still happening in the protected forests.
“We are banned to enter, but why can the people who log or transport logs enter the forest?” Ny asked. “The activity of Environment Ministry officials who banned us from entering Prey Lang for the tree-blessing ceremony makes it seems like this forest does not belong to all of us.”
Another representative from the province, Hoeun Sopheap, said restrictions on the communities’ forest patrollers had been tightening in recent years.
“It has become harder and harder, and the ministry has placed more restrictions on our actions,” he said.
Last week, ministry spokesman Neth Pheaktra said the group was breaking the law “under the guise of absolute freedom,” and accused it of “bad reporting.”
Heng Sros, who investigates forestry crimes for the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force, said Prime Minister Hun Sen had previously declared that all people have the right to protect the forests.
“I think that those officials who banned the people from entering like this, they may be afraid that the people will see some illegal logging activities,” Sros said, suggesting the moves made it appear that officials were colluding with loggers.
“If the government continues to take actions like this, the government will have a bad name,” Sros said.