Forest Falls in Ratanakkiri to the Tune of Chainsaws, Trucks

LUMPHAT WILDLIFE SANCTUARY, Ratanakkiri Province – From behind the corrugated metal walls of Daun Penh Agrico’s wood depot, the raspy buzz of a chainsaw rattled through the surrounding forest on Monday afternoon.

As the chainsaw revved and cut, a heavy-duty truck packed full of long, sawn logs of high-grade timber rumbled through the depot’s front gate, kicking up a choking cloud of dust that enveloped Keo Souleng’s modest stilt house.

Mr. Souleng, a nimble 62-year-old, who has farmed the land around his home for the past 31 years, said he sees at least nine such trucks, loaded with logs, enter the depot each day.

The cargoes of timber hauled “from outside” and into the depot began in March, stopped during the rainy season and started up again last month.

“They use nine trucks to transport the wood every day, during the day and during the night,” Mr. Souleng said.

Villagers and some local officials have accused the company of logging outside its government-approved rubber and palm oil plantations, which are located inside this sanctuary.

The villagers, many of them ethnic Lao, accuse government environmental officials of ignoring the logging of this nominally protected sanctuary.

They also accuse the loggers of targeting the century-old resin trees in the forest, which they depend on to make a living.

Manning a shabby wooden guard post just outside the gate of Daun Penh Agrico’s depot, San Sopheap pulled on a tan jacket a size or so too small for his tall frame with a Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary patch stitched to the shoulder.

Mr. Sopheap said that he worked for the provincial environment department and had been assigned to guard the company’s wood depot by Ou Sothea, the son of the Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary’s director, Ou Sothy.

Asked why the government was guarding a private firm’s sawmill, Mr. Sopheap declined to comment.

“If you want to know, ask my boss. His name is Ou Sothea,” he said. “My boss sent me to guard the company.”

The environmental officer and latter-day depot guard said the truck full of wood that rumbled through the gates on Monday afternoon had come all the way from neighboring Mondolkiri province to the south.

Lumphat district police chief Soy Thaov confirmed the arrangement between Daun Penh Agrico and the provincial environment department.

“Ou Sothea is the son of Ou Sothy, and he provides security for the company so they don’t need help from our authority,” the police chief said.

Daun Penh Agrico has the legal rights to log inside its land concession as a means to clear land for planting rubber and palm oil trees. But Mr. Thaov acknowledged that local villagers are worried about losing their farms to the firm and the surrounding forests they depend on.

“People now are worried because they’re afraid they will lose the forest and their farmland, and our authority can’t stop it because this is the order from the national level,” he said of the company’s work.

Lumphat district governor Kong Srun also confirmed Mr. Sothy and his son’s domain over the sanctuary, and he had some harshly critical words about the arrangement.

“Ou Sothy is the director of the Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary. His son, Ou Sothea, is part-time staff,” he said.

“Nowadays there are many illegal loggers in the wildlife sanctuary and no one can stop them because this area is under the control of Mr. Ou Sothy and his son,” he said.

“After we get information from villagers confirming that people are logging inside the wildlife sanctuary we go there to take action against the illegal logging. But we never see the loggers because Mr. Ou Sothy and his son tell the loggers to leave the logging place and we just find the trees already cut down,” the district governor said.

Neither the police chief nor the district governor had contact information for Mr. Sothy or his son, and those who did have the information refused to share it.

Sorn Sovansong, who oversees Lumphat district’s section of the wildlife sanctuary for the provincial environment department, said he was not authorized to speak with the media or to give out Mr. Sothy’s contact number.

“I don’t dare to give you his phone number because he has banned all his staff from giving his number to people,” Mr. Sovansong said.

He referred further questions to Ratanakkiri’s provincial environment department chief, Chou Sopheak, who declined to comment for this story.

Last month, Mr. Sopheak told The Cambodia Daily that the boundaries of Daun Penh Agrico’s land concession were not fully demarcated, making it impossible to know whether the firm was logging inside or outside the land it had been granted by the government. He conceded that some illegal logging may be taking place in the area.

Local villagers claimed the logging of their resin trees, and of several other protected species of rare woods, prized for their light-to-deep red grain, was happening well outside the bounds of the concessions. The local commune chief and district governor supported these claims.

Deep inside the Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary, a three-hour drive through mostly forestland from his home village of Sre Chhouk on the southern banks of the Srepok River, Khaim Sokha stepped over what was left of a recently logged Chheu Tiel tree.

“Do you know how old this tree is? It’s more than 100 years old,” said Mr. Sokha, an ethnic Lao who keeps a small house not far away from here for seasonal farming, fishing and tapping the local Chheu Tiel trees for their valuable resin.

Selling at 50,000 riel—about $12.50—for every 30 liters, the resin is a key source of income for the area’s villagers. But they say their resin trees are falling fast to the loggers.

“I worry because for the villagers here, their living depends on the resin trees. If they cut the trees, how can we make money?” he said.

Along the banks of a dry stream, more than a dozen additional Chheu Tiel and other high-value trees had recently been cut down, some gone but for their stumps and bark, others only toppled and waiting for the loggers to return and finish the job of turning them into lengths of timber.

Mr. Sokha said he and a group of fellow villagers came across the loggers here late last month. The loggers had come with three trucks to haul their cache of wood away. They said they worked for Daun Penh Agrico, Mr. Sokha said.

In late 2012, at a meeting inside the local commune office, he added, Mr. Sothy, the wildlife sanctuary’s elusive director, and Daun Penh company representatives offered to pay the villagers for every tree they cut down.

“The villagers did not agree, but they come to cut anyway,” Mr. Sokha said.

“The trees they cut here they take to Daun Penh Agrico,” he added. “I have seen it. One time I went inside the company [depot] and they paid me for the resin tree that they cut, $200 for five trees.”

Mr. Sokha said the loggers had already cut down the trees when he found them, and that the company only agreed to pay after an argument.

Down the dusty track from the depot, Mr. Souleng, the rice farmer, said he’d also been inside the depot on occasion to sell fish to the workers to earn some extra cash.

“They cut it [the logs] into timber. After they turn it into timber they take it to the Srepok River” he said, adding that he lost track of where the timber went from there.

Kim Eang, a representative for Daun Penh Agrico, declined to comment for this story.

Last month, local staff for rights group Adhoc found boatmen ferrying large logs across the Srepok River similar to those they had recently seen inside Daun Penh’s depot. According to Adhoc, the boatmen claimed that they worked for well-known timber magnate Try Pheap and that the logs were picked up on the opposite bank to be trucked to Vietnam.

The government granted Mr. Pheap the exclusive rights to buy up all the timber cut inside Ratanakkiri’s more than 24 official land concessions, including the one owned by Daun Penh Agrico.

Spokesmen for the Try Pheap company have denied any involvement in illegal logging but conceded that they have no reliable system in place to know if the timber they buy is sourced legally inside legal land concessions.

The government said the deal with Try Pheap would help stem illegal logging in the province, but rights groups and villagers living around concessions in Ratanakkiri say it has done just the opposite.

After a lengthy investigation of its own using field visits and satellite images, environmental campaign group Global Witness last month said land concessions belonging to other firms inside the Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary were also illegally logging healthy forest inside and outside the borders of their land.

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