Officials and villagers in Ratanakkiri province say illegal logging is once again on the rise inside the Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary and completely unregulated by the Environment Ministry officials in charge of the nominally protected zone.
During a visit by reporters to the area in December, Lumphat district governor Kong Srun accused the sanctuary’s director, Ou Sothy, of protecting loggers illegally felling trees outside the boundaries of the many agribusiness concessions located in the sanctuary.
On Monday, Mr. Srun said the rate of illegal logging had increased.
“Now, many people are logging in the sanctuary, and it’s getting worse,” he said. “I think the trees in the sanctuary will be gone soon if the government does not hurry up and stop the logging.
“I wonder how the environment officials control the Lumphat Sanctuary. They have weapons, so how can these people come into the forest and cut the trees?” he said.
“We don’t have the right to stop them because the sanctuary is under the control of the provincial environment department.”
Keo Souleng, who lives inside the sanctuary in Sre Chhouk village, said deforestation had picked up since July and that loggers were now coming from outside of the province.
Mr. Souleng said that during a single day last week, he came across 20 loggers, most of whom told him they had come from Kratie and Kompong Cham provinces and planned to transport the wood to Mondolkiri province, just to the south of Ratanakkiri.
“One of the groups had five people, and they were using two chainsaws. I asked them who they were cutting the wood for and one of them yelled at me, saying I did not need to know, because they had already paid the environment officials,” he said, adding that he has also witnessed loggers paying the environment officials.
Sre Chhouk village chief Mey Chey said he, too, has seen more and more loggers, and the timber they are cutting down, flowing unchecked out of the sanctuary.
“I think the environment officials must be letting those people cut the wood because [the officials] are very strict,” he said. “If they didn’t give people permission to get into the forest, they wouldn’t be able to get in.”
Provincial environment department director Chou Sopheak declined to comment Monday.
Chay Samith, who heads the Environment Ministry’s general department on forestry, also declined to comment, referring questions to the ministry’s spokesman and cabinet chief, Sao Sopheap, who could not be reached.
Rights groups and local residents say illegal logging in Ratanakkiri has been on the rise since February 2013, when the Agri- culture Ministry awarded timber magnate Try Pheap the exclu- sive right to purchase all wood felled inside the province’s 24 land concessions.
The government said the agreement would serve to curb the illegal logging trade, but opponents say the deal has done just the opposite, allowing concession holders to effectively launder illegal timber by quickly offloading it to Mr. Pheap.