|Photo: Borin Noun|
Saturday, 03 March 2012
The remote 200,000-hectares of Prey Lang Forest is arguably the Amazon of Cambodia.
Home to the indigenous Kouy people, “Prey Lang” means “our forest”.
Last year, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen approved a 9,000-hectare rubber plantation, despite its status as a protected area.
The deal is part of a joint business initiative between the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments, which say will improve local welfare.
But a recent investigation has revealed the dirty deals made between companies and villagers, and the extent of illegal logging in the forest.
Borin Noun joins the investigation team in the largest intact forest on the Indochina peninsula.
This is the second time the Prey Lang Network has patrolled the Prey Lang forest.
Two hundred people are travelling on foot from Kam Pong Thmor city and they have been walking for five hours now.
They have discovered many newly built small roads and hundreds of pieces of timber.
The team takes pictures of the logs as evidence.
Forest activist Cheang Vuthy is the head of the Prey Lang Network.
“Since 2010 we seized and destroyed many machines that we found in our Prey Lang forest and even around this area we also destroyed many. When we see the tools for cutting logs we must destroy them in this area after we take pictures as evidence.”
The team and the villagers then burn the 40 cubic meters of timbers found.
Chhut Vuthy is the president of Natural Resources Conservation Group in Cambodia.
“The communities decides to burn chopped timbers they find in Prey Lang. It is the only action we can do to crack down on the activities of illegal loggers. Our investigation shows that authorities are also behind this illegal business.”
Over 200 thousand people, including the indigenous Kouy people, depend on the forest for their livelihood.
This forest is also a vital source of water for Cambodia’s rice-growing region.
But now, the forest is rapidly being destroyed.
“Our investigation shows only 25 percent of the forest is left. We are sending warnings about the destruction in the future. We want the government to prevent more destruction from the rubber plant company. We have only one virgin forest and now it’s being destroyed.”
Following the investigation, Cambodia’s Prime Minister signed a sub-decree to protect 480,000 hectares of the forest as a conservation area.
The decision was celebrated, but Prey Lang activists remain skeptical because the government has yet to release the new map.
And, plans for rubber plantations have not been halted. It’s part of a trade promotion plan approved by the Prime Ministers of Cambodia and Vietnam in 2011.
The governemnts argue that the project will improve local welfare.
The Cambodian People’s Party, the current ruling party, is a big supporter of the policy.
Chheam Yeap is a senior official from the party.
“I would like to inform that this is not about the lack of responsibilities of the government. The government and parliament have to have joint responsibility on this case. In this case, it’s only a few people from Phnom Penh and around here who rejected the policy. The state has a duty to protect the farmers and increase the quality of life of the indigenous people here.”
But inside the thick jungle, two companies that hold concessions in the forest are believed to be logging illegally.
They are also giving out money to local villagers for what they call “local development”.
Uth Som On is the deputy governor of San Dan district.
“My authorities do not support illegal loggers cutting down our trees in Prey Lang. And we forbid everyone from receiving bribes from illegal businessmen. But we only have small number of forces and we cannot protect the whole forest.”
Chim Kha is one of the illegal loggers caught by local villagers.
“We are just employers, we get paid for cutting logs. We earn money about 15 US dollars for cutting big logs. We were in the forest for 15 days. It was my first and only time.”
He refused to reveal the identity of his employer, but says it’s someone powerful from the government.
Prey Lang Network is now collecting evidence of corruption from inside the forest.
“They give money to local authorities every month. They can transfer logs out from the forest with up to 30 small vehicles per month. And you see these roads were built recently.”
Over the next two months Prey Lang activists are planning to file a legal complaint together with the evidence of illegal logging they have identified in the forest.
60-year old Ros Lach is chief of the Kouy indigenous network.
The forest, he says, is part of Kouy’s history.
“We have lived here in the forest for many many years. We never destroy the forest. Our parents and grandparents always kept it intact as a symbol of our spirit. We get so much from the forest, but now we are worried so much about its future. Wild animals are running away and some were killed. We would like to call on the government, local and international NGOs to save the remains of our forest.”