NGOs Reject Claim That Virachey Park Safe From Loggers

Non-government groups working in Ratanakkiri province on Wednesday said illegal logging across the province’s northern forests was still rife, a day after former Environment Minister Mok Mareth called reports of such activity exaggerated.

After weeks of media reports that illegal logging in the northeastern province’s protected forests was on the rise, Mr. Mareth, a lawmaker for the ruling CPP, issued an open letter to say that the reports had “twisted the truth.”

He specifically insisted that agri-business firms operating inside Ratanakkiri’s 333,000-hectare Virachey National Park were doing no harm and in fact helping the area’s indigenous ethnic minority communities by offering them jobs.

But the former environment minister’s account clashes with regular reports from those communities and the NGOs keeping track of their disappearing forests.

Veronique Audibert-Pestel, a program manager for the NGO Poh Kao, has been trying to convince the government to establish a 55,000-hectare conservation area along Virachey’s southwestern border for several years.

On Wednesday, she said illegal logging was alive and well in the area’s thick forests, and that logging had picked up in recent months and was extending ever further into Virachey itself.

“What I see is destruction everywhere,” she said.

On a patrol of the area earlier this year, Ms. Audibert-Pestel said her NGO mapped a new road illegal loggers had cut through the area, which the NGO hoped to one day turn into a conservation area. The logging route cut across some of the local villages’ sacred forests, and well into Virachey Park.

“They are destroying spirit forests, they cut the big trees…. Now people are logging inside [the park],” she said. “It’s everywhere in the buffer zone and inside Virachey National Park.”

Chhay Thy, the provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said his staff watched loggers carrying at least 30 cubic meters of nominally protected, luxury grade Thnong wood out of Virachey Park’s Taveng district only on Wednesday.

“In only one day, we have seen two areas from where they transported at least 30 cubic meters,” he said. “My assistant is now staying in that area to continue investigating and to collect evidence and then make a report to send to the government.”

Mr. Thy said his staff tracked some of the logs, which were taken to a timber depot owned by businessman Try Pheap, who has the exclusive right to purchase all wood in Ratanakkiri province.

Pol Visal, deputy director of Mr. Pheap’s operations in Ratanakkiri, denied any involvement in illegal logging.

“I want to deny this because the information is not true. They [loggers] just use my company for personal advantage,” he said.

Chou Sopheak, who heads Ratanakkiri’s environment department, which manages the province’s national parks, declined to comment.

Thun Sarath, deputy director of the department of administration, planning and finance at the Forestry Administration, which oversees forests outside of parks and sanctuaries, said he knew of the reports of illegal logging in and around Virachey but added that it was up to local authorities to take action.

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