Grassroots Group Combats Illegal Logging in Its Own Backyard

khsim village, Khsim commune, Kratie province – At 11 pm on Fri­day, Feb 13, Mom Sakim’s mo­bile phone rang.

As the head of her local anti-logging group, Mom Sakim awoke and answered the call in the dark, on the floor of a two-room wooden house in Khsim village in Kra­tie province. The caller told her that a truck and a van, both load­ed with illegal timber from a village 10 km to the east, were headed her way.

By 11:30, other members of the community forest group in Khsim commune, about 15 km east of Snuol town, Snuol district, had assembled outside. Mom Sakim got up, lit a gas lan­tern and went down to try to organize transpor­tation. The routine was familiar, but the target new; they wanted to follow and try to stop the vehicles.

That night, as on many others, their efforts were stymied: They could not get their hands on a motorbike.

“On February 11, we stopped a truck with Beng and Neang Noun timber,” said Mom Sakim, referring to two species of luxury timber. On Feb 15, that truck still sat outside the district police office. “But three other trucks escaped the same night.”

Khsim commune is located on National Route 7, which winds through Phnom Penh, Kratie and Stung Treng, and connects to the region’s main road into Viet­nam. Its location means that much of Mondolkiri and Kratie’s illegally felled timber passes right outside Mom Sakim’s front door, said Mike Davis of the forestry watchdog group Global Witness.

Local officials admit that there is illegal logging, but often say they can’t do much about it.

Sao Sarim, deputy governor of Keo Seima district in Mondolkiri, said illegal logging has been going on since December. He said two truckloads of timber leave the district about every three days. There are about eight trucks and tractors working in Sre Chhuok, Memong and Chong Chlas communes in the district, he added.

“No one dares to take action against the loggers,” he said. “I am afraid of cracking down on that logging because I will be accused of cutting down trees. I reported it to the provincial governor, but he seemed to take no action.”

Mondolkiri Provincial Gover­nor Tor Soeuth denied there is illegal logging, saying only that some villagers cut trees for house­holds.

But according to Marcus Hardt­ke, Global Wit­ness project adviser, so-called luxury timber—valuable hardwood usually used to make furniture—is being logged illegally in Kratie and Mondolkiri. Luxury species have been protected from logging for decades, he said, but loggers have continued to cut the trees illegally.

In January 2002, the government imposed a logging mora­tor­ium, which closed down concessions where logging companies had legal permission to harvest other species, most of which were used for plywood. Under the moratorium, logging has continued but there seems to be a trend toward illegal logging of luxury species, because even a motorcycle can carry enough wood to make a decent profit, Davis and Hardtke said.

The wood that passes by Khsim is on its way to Vietnam, where one cubic meter sells for around $700. One car-load sells for hundreds of dollars in Vietnam or Thailand, they said. A truck-load earns thousands.

Not only are the villagers up against a multi-million dollar in­dustry, but it is one controlled by very powerful people.

“Some of the key players in the Cambodian logging mafia have very close ties to forestry administration people,” Davis said Wednesday at the launch of the new forestry monitor Societe General de Surveillance.

The effectiveness of Mom Sakim’s community forest group —one of the stronger examples of dozens throughout the country—lies more in the attention they bring to the problem than in the amount of timber they seize or logging they stop, experts say.

The group, which was organized in 2001, says it is limited by meager re­­sources and irregular government support. Mom Sa­kim said the group seized four vehicles loaded with timber last year, either by following them until they stopped or by blocking the road, usually with a motorbike. They confiscated 18 chainsaws on forest raids. But, she estimated as many as 10 vehicles slipped past them each day.

Still, those cutting and transporting illegal logs “are obviously feeling the pressure,” Davis said. He cited the fact that observers have noted fewer trucks openly hauling big loads of illegally cut timber and more cars, which pack small loads of luxury wood into the trunk.

“The activities have gone down a little bit,” Mom Sakim said. “Now they seem to transport very secretly—not as open as in past years.”

Minister of Agriculture, For­estry and Fish­eries Chan Sarun denies that there is mas­sive logging.

“It is very small-scale tree cutting. They are not large-scale,” he said. “I did not get any information about logging [in Kratie or Mondolkiri]. But I think some villagers cut trees for domestic use.”

Global Witness issued a statement Friday in which the group detailed the logging in the area. Davis said Global Witness investigators found that luxury timber is being logged from deep in the forest in Mondolkiri and in Kra­tie, north of Khsim, then transported by armed groups to Viet­nam, either along Route 7 or over old logging roads that pass through the Snuol Wildlife Sanc­tuary.

A Global Witness investigator last month took photographs of stockpiles of luxury timber in Vietnam about 5 km from the border, which they suspect came from Cambodia.

The sheer scale of illegal logging in Cambodia, Davis said, means that the small amount of wood Mom Sakim’s group confiscates has little effect on the bottom line. But the work they do is still dangerous.

Last year, with support from the Ministry of Environment, Mom Sakim helped put up markers to identify the boundaries of the Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary. Ministry of Environment officials and local villagers also replanted trees in a 20-hectare area of the sanctuary that had been cleared by families for farming.

On June 3, the day after the tree replanting ceremony, Mom Sakim found a note posted on a broken cement marker placed in the road, she said.

The note contained a direct threat to her: “Mom Sakim, don’t be strong. Be careful. You will be killed before your time.”

Asked about threats, Mom Sakim smiled and shrugged. “Of course, the community has been threatened at least 30 times in 2001 and 2002,” she said.

It is likely her relationship with her neighbors that has kept her safe, while fighting criminals who are armed and better equipped.

“She commands respect from the community and is protected by the community,” said Eva Galabru, the former head of Glo­bal Witness, who met Mom Sakim in the course of her work. Galabru continues investigating forest crimes, working independently with several NGOs.

“We are only volunteers and get no pay,” Mom Sakim said. “We have worked with our will.”

Logging in their forest infuriates them. Walking through the forest this month about 10 km east of Khsim village, Mom Sakim and members of the forest group passed by remnants of January’s logging. At each, Mom Sakim’s normally stern expression became even more serious, though she already knew of the logging.

Off to the side of the path lay scattered husks of trees from which the inside—the commercially viable timber—was cut out. Farther into the forest, stacks of cut planks—sawdust and all—marked spots where the villagers caught loggers in action.

The logging is nothing new.

“Illegal logging in and around the Snuol Wildlife Sanctuary has been going on for years,” Hardtke said. The sanctuary spans parts of Kratie and Mondolkiri provinces. Now most of the logging goes on in the forest outside the sanctuary because the sanctuary has already been heavily logged, he said.

Hor Chaek, a small, excitable man who lives in a village just at the edge of this patch of forest, de­scribed how he had seen men chain­sawing a felled tree into planks. But the loggers escaped, leaving the valuable planks.

“The offenders have telephones and walkie-talkies,” Mom Sakim said. “So they can contact each other. And sometimes there are secret agents, so they tip off offenders about our raids.”

Once discovered, loggers rarely come back for the wood they leave. On the four-hour walk, Hor Chaek pointed out half a dozen such sites, some with more than 20 cut planks. In several places the planks were smoldering in a small forest fire, “probably started be­cause someone threw a cigarette,” Mom Sakim said.

When they came upon large stores of wood, they measured the length and took notes on the quantity of the stash.

“We have reported the timber to the forestry office, but they did not take action,” said Hor Chaek said. “We have to catch the timber, if we can not catch it we report it to the authorities to take actions. We do what we can do.”

Sometimes officials are a help, sometimes a hindrance.

“We have the right to stop trucks suspected of carrying illegal timber,” Mom Sakim said. “Sometimes we have stopped a truck and handed it over to authorities, but later the truck was released to the offenders.”

At the same time, group members and forestry experts agree that part of their success has been in enlisting the help of certain authorities. “It’s one of the few places where cooperation is working,” Davis said.

Koan Laev, Snuol district deputy police chief, said his officers rely on reports and investigations by local villagers as well as police. Last month, the provincial governor, Loy Sophat, ordered the po­lice to crack down, he said. They confiscated two truckloads of timber, he said.

“The timber came from Mon­dol­kiri,” he said. “The big trees in Snuol district have gone.” He said that in the past, the police were not given the task of cracking down on illegal logging.

Under the Forestry Law, anyone can stop illegal logging, said Ieng Saveth, manager of the Forest Crime Monitoring and Re­porting unit of the Ministry of Agri­culture, Forestry and Fisheries.

“But you have to make clear who is responsible,” he said. He said everyone should be reporting to forestry officials, who will then take action. If those officials don’t take action, then people can report to the next level. He said the new Forestry Administration should make it easier for people to report forest crimes. Before, control was shared between provincial authorities and Phnom Penh.

Snuol forestry officials interviewed this month said they had arrived one week earlier from Kratie town but knew of no illegal logging. Even if it did occur, trucks carrying heavy timber would “collapse the bridges” along the pro­vince’s main roads, said a forester who did not give his name.

In general, the effectiveness of measures to combat logging are “all very much personality-driven,” said Hardtke. In places where at least some officials are receptive and community members are act­ive, as in Kratie, those fighting logging seem to have some success.

Look at the Snuol Wildlife Sanc­tuary, he said.

“There is still little encroachment along the road in the sanctuary in Kratie. Just across the border in Mondolkiri, the situation is completely different,” he said.

And Mom Sakim and the members of the community forestry group are nothing if not determined.

“We want to conserve the forest for the next generation,” Mom Sakim said. “If we do not conserve it, the forest will be gone.”



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