Faced with the rapid loss of vast tracts of forest across Cambodia, local communities have begun to fight back, and a growing number of villagers are now organizing their own aggressive forest patrols in order to save the forests on which they have relied for generations.
Since last year villagers have been patrolling, seizing logging equipment, and confronting loggers, and are continuing to do so in Prey Long forest and Kratie and Mondolkiri provinces, local activists and NGO workers said yesterday.
On Tuesday, a group of about 60 indigenous Banong and Stieng minority villagers in Kratie’s Snuol district confiscated three chainsaws and hundreds of cubic meters of timber in a community forest and in Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary, said San Siyan, a representative of the villagers.
“We saw a lot of workers employed to cut logs…. But we were able to seize three chainsaws and detained eight workers for one hour, while dozens of loggers fled away,” Mr. Siyan said, adding that villagers informed the local Forestry Administration of the timber haul and let the loggers go after giving them a warning.
Sin San, a representative for the Prey Long People’s Network, said a group of several hundred villagers would launch another 15-day march into the forest next Tuesday in order to patrol Prey Long’s 135,000-hectare pristine core area, which he said was threatened by “massive illegal logging.” The march follows two forest patrols the group made last month.
“The community is expanding its activities in forest patrols after authorities at all levels have failed to stop logging in Prey Long forest,” Mr. San said, adding that villagers held several smaller patrols last month.
The group has members in Stung Treng, Kompong Thom, Preah Vihear and Kratie provinces–which are all partially covered by the approximately 650,000-hectare lowland evergreen forest–and it conducted a similar grassroots campaign in November, during which about 300 villagers marched for 10 days until local authorities broke up the march.
The campaigners have had some success as the Forestry Administration recently drafted a tentative proposal to make Prey Long a national park.
Indigenous minority villagers said such communal forest protection activities were on the rise as communities realized that authorities were failing to safeguard the forests, or sometimes even participating in illegal logging rings.
“Other Cambodians are becoming more highly educated and will not be directly affected by the loss of forest, but indigenous people are not used to getting jobs…which is why we need to stand up to protect the forest,” said Huon Chea, a 49-year-old Banong villager from Snuol district.
Khan Channy, a Banong villager in Mondolkiri’s Bousra commune, said villagers there had tried to set up forest patrols but struggled to get access to dense forests in the area “as local authorities and RCAF soldiers stationed [nearby]…prevent us from reaching the forests.
Although most villagers are skeptical of government efforts to protect forests, the Forestry Administration said it welcomes the villagers’ patrols as a way to boost its own forest protection work.
“Of course, we do need them to help patrol forest to curb and combat illegal logging and deforestation,” said Tiep Kunpidor, head of the Khyoeum commune Forestry Administration in Kratie province.
He added that his office had received 16 chainsaws confiscated by villagers since January.
Forestry Administration spokesman Thun Sarat also welcomed the villagers’ activities, adding, “It’s a good method. We can put it in our [forest protection] strategy.”
He said the administration could use this type of support as “depending on the area…there is sometimes a shortage of FA staff and government resources provided to them.”
NGO workers and conservationists said there was a clear trend of growing engagement in forest protection as local communities realize that without it they would lose their forests forever.
Marcus Hardtke, an independent environmental expert, said deforestation rates in Cambodia had soared to levels not seen since the 1990s–when there was widespread forest destruction–because illegal logging has worsened and the government has allocated numerous agro-industrial concessions in protected areas.
“It’s increasingly anarchistic what is happening out there. Even granted community forests are being given away by the government to companies,” he said. “There is just increasing pressure in the countryside and they [villagers] have to do something,” Mr. Hardtke said. “In the old days, when people in Ratanakkiri for instance, would lose their land they would move to another area. Now that’s no longer possible.”
Sao Vansey, director of the Indigenous Community Support Organization, said indigenous villagers felt that they were fighting for the very survival of their community’s existence.
“This is very important to their livelihoods, their spirits, culture and customs,” he said. “Most tell me that they fear they will lose their land, their homes, their forests and their culture, and what is the future for their children?”
Chut Wutty, director of the Natural Resources Protection Group, which supports the Prey Long campaign, said that villagers were implementing existing laws that protect the forests, but which go unimplemented by authorities.
“If they don’t do it by themselves they will lose everything,” he said. “If villagers complain to the FA, the provincial court, they don’t take action, unless you pay them money.”
“The government doesn’t implement the law and so now the local people implement it,” Mr. Wutty said.