Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) in Preah Vihear province, which investigates forest crimes in Prey Lang has found many crimes, including forest land encroachments in four locations and incessant deforestation. Environmental activists safeguarding the remaining forest, exhort relevant authorities to collaborate with stakeholders to bring perpetrators to justice and put an end to forest crimes.
According to the network’s official Facebook page on November 29, forest land encroachments in four locations spanning 50 hectares continue to occur within Chum Thnong, Chum Brotial, Ou Achdeck and Ou Ghoul. Thirty members found 16 perpetrators, fitted out with ‘ko yun’ (tractor-driven carts), motorcycles and chainsaws, operating surreptitiously within Prey Lang’s dense forest canopy.
A Facebook account led by Prey Lang Activists, Prey Lang – It’s Our Forest Too, with 38,000 followers, shed light on deforestation activities in an area designated as the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary in 2016. Prey Lang activists frequently patrol with local communities in assiduous attempts to preserve what remains of the sanctuary and other protected forests, where deforestation of this scale in protected areas is a primary concern for people, wildlife and the environment.
Srey Thy, a representative of PLCN, said the perpetrators used chainsaws to fell the trees, and ko yun and motorcycles to transport the logs. Although the perpetrators operated there, he did not know where they came from, who was behind them or which company they worked for. The network continues to investigate.
“Deforestation within Prey Lang has surged. The network has uncovered 30 hectares of forest areas that have been cleared in Prey Lang,” Thy said. “We reported to the authorities when we came upon the forest crimes so that legal action could be taken on the perpetrators, but there was no investigation after that.”
Thy, who has been investigating forest crimes in Prey Lang, called on the government and relevant authorities to collaborate with stakeholders to combat illegal logging in the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, which has seen a sharp increase in forest crimes in the last decade.
“We urge the government to take stern action on forestry crimes and for the Ministry of Environment to lay out specific measures in combating these crimes,” he said. “If they cannot work effectively with relevant stakeholders, it would be carte blanche for perpetrators to operate with impunity.”
Pictures taken by the patrollers showed newly-cut logs neatly stacked within close proximity of the deforested sites. Most of the logs were cut into long planks, making it easy to transport, with the scarred stumps visible in the background.
He bemoaned that in 2019, PLCN was restricted from patrolling the area freely, which caused deforestation crimes to rise significantly within the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary. However, local communities possess the right to protect the forests, as provided for under the Protected Area Law.
Refuting allegations by the activists that the authorities did not render full cooperation, Deputy Governor of Preah Vihear Nop Vuthy said the activists were making “untrue accusations” and that cooperation was always offered in order to protect the remaining forest.
“We also urged them to show and report to us where the forest crimes took place but they did not work in tandem with us. They are always giving lame excuses, saying that they’re busy doing this or that,” Vuthy told CamboJA. “I informed the forestry officials to collaborate with them, but they [activists] failed to work together.”
Preah Vihear forestry administration chief Ith Phoumra could not be reached for comment.
In 2001, the government formalized economic land concessions within the land law with the aim of developing rural areas via large-scale agro-industrial plantations that would create jobs and produce goods for export. However, many of the concessions were granted in or nearby virgin forests, and within designated protected areas, resulting in large-scale logging.
In May 2012, then Prime Minister Hun Sen temporarily suspended new economic land concessions (ELCs), with the threat of revoking concessions from companies involved in illegal logging, eviction of locals or land-grabbing. Notwithstanding the moratorium, the granting of new ELCs started in March 2022, a decade after Hun Sen’s suspension. This marked the beginning of people’s alleged suffering as a result of the concessionaires’ activities, including the clearing of huge swathes of forest land for development.
Destruction of forested areas is still rampant in four provinces, Hoeun Sopheap, a PLCN representative in Kampong Thom, said. The authorities often reject evidence of unabated forest crimes reported by the activists in Prey Lang.
“We [the network] will go there once again. We want the authorities to patrol with us so that they can corroborate our findings,” Sopheap said.
What Prey Lang patrollers describe as an “activist’s mission” consists of joint forest patrols with local communities to gather data on illegal logging by collecting the location coordinates of freshly felled trees, and then helping the community publish the findings on social media.
Sopheap urged that action be taken to cease illegal logging and preserve the incredible biodiversity of Prey Lang, which has long been targeted for its abundant natural resources to the point that ecological integrity of the protected area is now threatened by illegal logging that continues to ravage the forest.
“We call on the authorities to get involved extensively in forest patrols. We want them to collaborate with us rather than ban our work in Prey Lang. If we look at the law, the authorities’ refusal to allow citizens to be assiduously involved in protecting the remaining forest is wrong,” he told CamboJA.
Kampong Thom provincial environment department director Tob Kakada denied the existence of illegal deforestation within Prey Lang on the supposed date mentioned by the activists.
“I have already announced that the area where PLCN claims to have deforestation is beyond the realm of my control. It is not in Prey Lang like they claimed.”
Tob Kakada declined to comment further on CamboJA’s questions and proceeded to hang up the phone.
Acting on PLCN’s claims, Kompong Thom Department of Environment mentioned on their Facebook page that environmental officers had checked on the deforestation site where the activists allegedly found forest crimes and agreed that loggers had cut trees in Mean Rith commune in Sandan District. About 13 hectares of forest had been lost, the department stated. However, they asserted that the crime did not occur within Prey Lang in Kampong Thom, “but 500 meters from the border”.
Meanwhile, PLCN alleged that the Environment Ministry tried to block activists from patrolling, allowing loggers to freely enter the forest to chop down luxury trees and transport timber out of the forest. It pointed out devastating levels of logging in 2016 when the forest was designated a wildlife sanctuary. In early February 2021, their officers arbitrarily detained five environmental defenders who were investigating illegal logging activities in Prey Lang.
San Mala, a human rights and environmental activist, who actively participates in forest patrols with local communities, told CamboJA that illegal logging has been a massive problem, and has not shown any signs of slowing down. He shared that it is also becoming more difficult for communities to procure cooperation from local authorities to combat illegal logging.
Mala’s Facebook account has some 47,000 followers at the time of writing. His posts frequently reach a large audience, thanks to his exposure on the scale of forest loss in protected areas. This activism has placed Mala and the community in the crosshairs of the Cambodian authorities, as his team publicized more egregious patterns of deforestation.
“Forest crimes have increased drastically with no sign of letting up in Prey Lang or Preah Roka. We see that in a democratic society, local communities and activists are restricted from patrolling the protected areas by authorities,” he said. “But authorities have shown a lack of will to bring perpetrators to justice and stamp out deforestation, instead they pounce on NGOs or activists.”
Authorities should encourage activists, who work tirelessly to safeguard the forest, which is a priceless heritage of Cambodia rather than denouncing outspoken environmental activists as “dissidents or peddlers of scurrilous claims that damage the government’s reputation”, Mala said.
Over 2021, Prey Lang wildlife sanctuary lost more than 11,100 hectares of tree cover, the highest on record. It represents a 22% increase since 2020 and 2.7% of the total forest cover. Since 2000, Prey Lang wildlife sanctuary has lost 67,400 ha of forest, equivalent to 16% of the total forest cover.
Global Forest Watch, an online forest monitoring program, provided preliminary satellite data from January to August 2023, revealing grim evidence that Cambodia has experienced increased deforestation in 2023 compared to 2022 or 2021. It amounted to 433.109 hectares with 2021 marking the highest forest cover loss since the turn of the century.