As government officials fretted about a future of rising sea levels while marking World Environment Day in Kep province, some 300 activists from across the country Thursday used the occasion to protest in Phnom Penh against the rampant logging quickly leveling Cambodia’s forests.
Led by the Cambodian Youth Network, the protesters included monks, students and others suffering from the loss of forest across the country. Some dressed up as lions and crocodiles and painted their faces green.
But security guards and military police blocked them from marching on the Environment Ministry to deliver a petition asking for help, claiming that their planned walk would threaten the rights of others.
Among the protesters’ main concerns is a pair of planned hydropower dams whose reservoirs will flood tens of thousands of hectares of forest and force hundreds of families from their homes.
Their petition urges the government to cancel the projects.
Ven Vorn, who joined the protest, is one of hundreds of ethnic minority Chong who will have to leave their ancestral lands and spirit forests to make way for the Stung Chhay Areng dam, which will flood pristine forest in Koh Kong province and destroy the habitat of some endangered species.
“I hope the government officials cancel the proposed Areng dam because it seriously threatens the natural resources and the livelihood of the Chong,” he said. “Villagers in the Areng Valley do not need the dam; if they build it we will lose our jobs and our traditions.”
Ethnic Banong also came from Stung Treng province, where hundreds of families face eviction to make way for the Sesan II dam.
Thay Sovanny made the trip from Preah Vihear province, where he helps protect the sprawling but as-yet unprotected Prey Long Forest.
“Businessmen and companies who get land concessions are destroying the forest, and we see that the Forestry Administration takes no action to stop Try Pheap’s companies from destroying the environment,” he said.
Mr. Pheap owns several land concessions, has the exclusive rights to buy all wood logged on land concessions in Ratanakkiri province, and buys up much of the illegally logged wood seized by authorities and auctioned.
Affected communities and rights groups say the deals are fueling illegal logging across the country, but company officials deny the firm’s involvement in any illicit activity.
Right groups have cited land concessions like Mr. Pheap’s, handed out to industrial scale agri-business firms, as one of the key drivers of both deforestation and forced evictions in the country. In November, an American university’s analysis of U.S. satellite data indicated that Cambodia had the fifth highest rate of forest loss in the world.
The government claims to want to protect the country’s forests with the help of carbon credits, essentially selling the carbon locked up in its trees to environmentally conscious firms abroad looking to offset their emissions.
But what should soon be Cambodia’s first carbon trading forest, in Oddar Meanchey province, is disappearing fast to desperate farmers, illegal loggers and soldiers building new bases and garrisons, according to the communities who are trying to keep the trees standing and say the project is all but doomed.
At Thursday’s protest, military police stopped the activists from marching to the Environment Ministry from where they had gathered near the Russian Embassy, but let a small group of them deliver their petition.
Environment Ministry officials meanwhile marked the day in coastal Kep province by focusing on the coming rise of sea levels being driven by global climate change.
Provincial Governor Ken Satha, who attended the event, defended the choice of topic.
“It is not only one thing, like cutting down trees, that is involved in climate change,” he said. “There are many factors, like rising temperatures and greenhouse gases.”
He said Environment Ministry secretary of state Sabou Ousano was on hand to deliver a speech to a crowd of about 500 locals, students and officials on the government’s efforts to combat and prepare for climate change. He also helped to plant 200 new trees.