Banong villagers in Mondolkiri province are reporting a rise in illegal logging operations from Vietnam and last week filed two new complaints with rights group Adhoc accusing local authorities of colluding with the timber smuggling trade.
Villagers in neighboring Ratanakkiri province, where authorities confiscated more than 200 cubic meters of luxury wood last week, say they have also seen an increase in illicit cross-border logging from Vietnam-based operations.
O’Yadaw district resident Romah Noeun said Paknhai commune alone has seen three cases of illegal logging this year already, netting three tractors and the apprehension of 11 Vietnamese workers. He said that local villagers, patrolling local forest areas, apprehended four Vietnamese national in only two cases during all of 2009.
“We think that logging by Vietnamese loggers is dramatically on the rise,” Mr Noeun said, noting how ethnic minority hilltribe villagers have increasingly come across the loggers and their stashes of illegally felled trees during forays into the local forests for daily supplies.
According to Mr Noeun, though, the loggers rarely remain in their grasp for long.
“When we brought those Vietnamese loggers who spoke Vietnamese to the village and commune office to speak with the community, the chiefs always ask the community to compromise, to release the loggers after they agree to pay a fine and leave the cut logs for the community,” he said. “They make a written contract promising to stop logging in Cambodia,” and then they are released by local officials, Mr Noeun said, adding that local villagers feel compelled to acquiesce.
Paknhai commune chief Rocham Hleuch yesterday confirmed the apprehension of Vietnamese loggers and said the confiscated logs and equipment are usually handed over to the Forestry Administration.
Hilltribe villagers in Mondolkiri are taking a more proactive approach, venturing into their local forests to track the illegal loggers down. They say they are planning another anti-logging patrol this week.
“We have seen dozens of traces to prove a mushrooming of logging committed by Vietnamese with collusion of Cambodia’s RCAF border soldiers,” said local Banong villager Phlang Sin. “Wherever the RCAF border soldiers are stationed, the clearance of forest for logs exists.”
Also unlike their Ratanakkiri neighbors, Mondolkiri villagers are taking legal action. They lodged a complaint with the provincial court on Jan 15 accusing an RCAF soldier of threatening to shoot them after they had allegedly detained five Vietnamese loggers with a tractor and chainsaws. The villagers also took photographs of the detained Vietnamese nationals before they were forced to release them when a Cambodian border solider allegedly threatened them at gunpoint.
Seeing no action from the court, the villagers filed the same complaint with Adhoc, and a second complaint against the Mondolkiri Provincial Court’s Prosecutor, Im Sophan, for allegedly releasing four Vietnamese loggers arrested in a separate incident. Villagers say they saw Mr Sophan make the arrests himself.
Contacted by telephone yesterday, Mr Sophan said the case against the RCAF soldier was in progress but he declined to elaborate. As for the villagers’ allegations against him, Mr Sophan insisted he never made the arrests the villagers claimed to have witnessed.
“It is not true because when I was there nobody was in the forest except villagers walking around,” Mr Sophan said. “It is the villagers’ right to file a complaint against me but I have done nothing wrong,” he said.
Mondolkiri Provincial RCAF Commander Meas Nak also rejected the villagers’ allegation against his troops’ involvement in cross-border logging.
“Soldiers under my supervision never commit such logging crimes or make threats. These villagers are soiling our soldiers’ reputation,” he said.
Provincial Forestry Administration chief Song Kheang said he has heard repots of Vietnamese loggers operating in Cambodia from local human rights workers but has never personally witnessed this.
“I’ve heard information from mouth to mouth about the logging allegations,” he said. “We officially have never caught any Vietnamese loggers red-handed but we are happy to have the community cooperate and inform us of existing crimes.”
Provincial Adhoc investigator Chhay Thy said the villagers’ complaint against Mr Sophan, the prosecutor, would be sent to the group’s Phnom Penh office for further investigation.