Forestry officials and police on Monday arrested seven men for logging illegally in Stung Treng province’s Sesan district, officials said Tuesday.
But a commune chief and a local conservationist said the arrests of the men, who were using machetes, was being used to direct attention away from large-scale illegal logging taking place in the vicinity of the under-construction Lower Sesan II hydropower dam.
Tith Vy, chief of the Forestry Administration’s Srekor-Kbal Romeas triage, said the seven men were arrested Monday morning near the border of the two communes for which the triage is named.
“I can confirm that we arrested seven people yesterday because they were clearing state forest land without permission,” Mr. Vy said, adding that the men were planning to clear five hectares of land but refusing to explain how he knew this.
“We are still questioning them at my office,” he said, declining to name the seven.
Kbal Romeas commune police chief Lot Maran confirmed the arrests, but also refused to name the men.
“The Forestry Administration officials asked my police officers to help them arrest [those] who were involved with clearing land,” he said.
Royal Group, a local conglomerate headed by tycoon Kith Meng, has the exclusive right to clear a 36,000-hectare reservoir for the 400-megawatt Lower Sesan II.
But Siek Mekong, the chief of nearby Srekor commune who lives on the dam site, said that large-scale loggers were busy felling trees illegally and laundering them through the reservoir.
“I think that this action is unjust,” Mr. Mekong said of the arrests.
“They arrested normal people who were cutting a little bit of wood for their livelihoods,” he said. “I never see officials arresting logging companies for ruining the environment.”
Meach Mean, coordinator of the 3S Rivers Protection Network, a local conservation NGO, said Forestry Administration officials likely targeted the seven men in order to make it appear as if action is being taken to stop illegal logging.
“The arrests were made only to make them look good,” he said. “They arrest only small people and never arrest any companies illegally logging.”