Finger-Pointing, Logging Continue Unabated

snuol district, Kratie province – The hills of Svay Chrea commune once were crowned by flourishing forests. But local logging has thinned the trees and driven some residents to demand an end to the “anarchic destruction.”

“Please ban this destruction. Do not allow the anarchic destruction of the forest on our territory,” read a Dec 16 petition, darkened by 103 ink-stained thumbprints.

The petition accuses military officials of cutting down trees for personal enrichment.

Kim Leng, a farmer and wife of Svay Chrea’s second deputy commune chief, said she signed the petition with her children in mind.

“I’m afraid this will destroy the forest. There will be nothing left for the younger generation,” Kim Leng, 52, said last month.

Kong Narin, provincial forestry department chief, said more than 1,000 hectares of land were cleared between 1999 and 2002. He attributed most of the clearing to local residents seeking land to cultivate.

Although he has the authority to crack down on illicit logging, Kong Narin said his officials can do little to stop powerful government and military officials.

“It is difficult to deal with the military,” he said by phone on Monday.

A human rights investigator said in Kratie last month that the province’s forests are being stripped bare.

“In 2002, the governor confiscated two tractors and three bicycles when villagers complained about illegal logging. But he hasn’t done anything since,” the said last month.

The investigator, who requested that his name and organization remain anonymous, said Governor Loy Sophat has turned a blind eye to covert logging activities.

“Soldiers always take bribes and allow tractors to carry wood across the border to Vietnam,” the investigator said.

Loy Sophat said it is not high government officials or retired soldiers destroying the forests, but the locals themselves.

Major logging enterprises are not taking place, he said. And he dismissed the possibility of wood being cut illegally and sold across the Vietnamese border.

In 2000, complaints were filed against a former RCAF lieutenant colonel for his connection to a stash of felled timber. Kratie provincial authorities seized the logs along the Mekong River. The former soldier, Sath Soeun, was stripped of his rank in October 1998 for his alleged connection to the illegal rubber and timber trade.

Also that year, violence erupted when officials tried to stop four boats from transporting cut logs. In July 2000, three suspected illegal loggers—armed with AK-47s—opened fire on authorities, killing a provincial forestry official and seriously wounding a provincial environmental official.

The only logging now permitted, Loy Sophat said, are small-time jobs by and for local villagers. Locals are welcome to cut trees by hand, he said, and should not be bothered by authorities.

Leaning against an unfinished wooden staircase built from trees he chopped, villager Phin Sring said district and military police routinely pillage local stashes of lumber.

“The police always confiscate the wood and they return the oxcart. Sometimes the villagers just bribe them, and they allow the villagers to transport the wood [to Vietnam],” he said last month.

Eang Thy, 30, said forestry police officers detained him last month for hauling 150,000 riel (about $37.50) worth of wood. Rather than charging Eang Thy, he said the officers collected his wood and returned his oxcart. He believes the officers sold the wood for their own profit.

The governor, who acknowledged the extortion and said it was wrong, offered no solution to the problem.

“People are busy cutting, and the police are busy taking bribes from the villagers.” Loy Sophat said.

Logging—on a small or large scale—has become a major economic engine for Kratie residents. Many families depend on the sale of lumber to local furniture shops, and clandestine exports to Vietnam, villagers said.

But villagers worry that a day’s wages may not be worth the environmental cost.

“It can’t go on,” Kim Leng said. “If all is sold to Vietnam, we will have no roofs to cover our heads.”

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