Oral district, Kompong Speu province – Thoeun Yim wishes it wasn’t getting so hot in Trapaing Chor commune. Children used to receive their lessons under the shade of a tree before Chrork Teak village’s primary school was constructed. A cooling breeze used to blow through the eastern lowlands of Oral Wildlife Sanctuary, whose mountains rise above the 200 families’ village.
But now 400 hectares of forest in Chrork Teak village have been cleared, and villagers say they can feel the difference in the air.
“We don’t get shade when the forest is cut down,” Thoeun Yim, a 15-year-old student at the school, said in an interview earlier this month, clutching a drawing of a house surrounded by palm trees and lotus flowers. “I want to live in a place where there are trees,” she said.
Last month, the students at Thoeun Yim’s school put their thoughts to paper, writing letters, thumb-printing petitions and drawing cartoons of animals begging for their forest homes to be saved.
“They always draw the environment…. They demonstrate their concern, and you can’t help but feel pity for them,” said Nhim Sovon, 27, the village school’s director.
The students’ sketches were distributed to journalists, an SRP representative and local rights group Licadho last month-a humble plea to stop the deforestation that has besieged Oral district in recent years.
The signs are all along the bumpy road to Chrork Teak village: roadside kilns, heaps of neatly stacked firewood, ox-carts loaded down with charcoal and motorized trailers pulling tree trunks.
Deeper in Oral Sanctuary-protected under a 1993 Royal Degree for Protected Areas-high-volume sawmills cut up the taller trees for luxury timber.
With the improvement of roads to the district, the illegal timber industry flourished in recent years; an enterprise was allegedly spearheaded by military who have retained a heavy presence in the district, Jon Buckrell, a campaigner for the outspoken forestry NGO Global Witness, wrote in an e-mail message last week.
“The military…make a lot of money there through the logging, and politicians choose to turn a blind eye,” he claimed.
The impetus for donors to pressure for reform on logging has fallen away in recent years, Buckrell wrote. “Many donors now perceive the forest sector as being too politically difficult and have allowed it to slip down the list of priorities.”
Global Witness was banned from Cambodia in 2005 but continues to monitor logging here.
What began as a steady incursion of outside loggers has trickled down to local families, for whom logging has become one of the few means of making a living in the district.
A Khmer Rouge stronghold up until the mid-1990s, Trapaing Chor commune had an irrigation dam that broke after the fighting ended and was never repaired, making farming a virtual impossibility, said Bann Vanna, a 57-year-old villager.
“During the rice-farming season, I would farm rice. But last year, I could not do it because of the drought,” said Chim Choeun, 24, who was driving an ox-cart carrying two tree trunks on the road from Chrork Teak village to Kompong Speu town. “I have been cutting trees for over a year because I have no other business to make money for my family,” he said.
Each of the 6-meter logs would fetch $2.50 to $3 at the market, Chim Choeun said. That’s excluding the unofficial payments that residents say local authorities extract from local loggers, transporters and charcoal kiln operators.
Four RCAF soldiers manning a checkpoint near Chrork Teak Primary School said they take action against more serious instances of logging. They said, however, that they may sometimes turn a blind eye to logging on private property, although they do not take bribes.
“We check for illegal wildlife and if there are big, freshly cut logs,” said one soldier, who declined to be named. “The small logs come from the families’ own plots of land, and it’s okay.”
Keo Samoun, commander of RCAF’s Military Region Three, which operates in Oral district, said none of his forces were involved in logging. But he added that illegal loggers have at times put on uniforms and masqueraded as RCAF soldiers.
“[The soldiers] are assigned to guard there, but I don’t know why the logs still fly out of the area,” he said.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Environment Ministry, local officials and NGOs organized several waves of high-profile crackdowns on logging-confiscating chainsaws, shutting down sawmills and making arrests, NGO workers said. But residents and NGO officials say that such efforts have declined in recent years.
In 2005, Chrork Teak villager Bann Vanna was appointed to lead a community forest protection council for Chrork Teak and Pos Meas villages, leading missions out to the sanctuary to curb logging.
With only commune-level recognition, the councils have little leverage, said Nov Noeun, second deputy chief for Trapaing Chor commune.
“We don’t have the responsibility to crack down on loggers-the military police and rangers do,” he said, adding that higher-level government officials need to step in.
But combating logging on the ground, even for rangers, can be a dangerous prospect. In September 2005, two Environment Ministry rangers were shot to death in Trapaing Chor commune, apparently in connection to their attempts to combat illegal logging, officials said at the time.
Since then, the rangers have become “relaxed,” according to Bann Vanna who no longer leads the protection council. “They stopped enforcing and started colluding, and now they let the loggers cut freely,” he alleged.
Meas Nhin, the Environment Ministry-appointed director of Oral Sanctuary, said there have previously been corrupt rangers, but that measures have been taken to weed them out.
“We have special investigations to determine which ones [are corrupt],” he said, adding that 13 rangers were dismissed for corruption last year.
Meas Nhin said the Environment Ministry’s efforts to combat logging have increased over the last year, with 23 arrests in 2006, due to closer cooperation with the Forestry Administration and NGO Conservation International.
But Meas Nhin also acknowledged that logging remains fueled by people with “high power from somewhere” who employ poor families as local labor. He added that government officials are invested in the industry, though he said he did not know who they were.