Mired in poverty, three Kompong Chhnang province orphans recently went into the forest and felled trees, breaking the government’s logging moratorium to survive, they say.
But provincial police accuse the two brothers and their neighbor of illegal logging and say their action was commercial.
Than Thea, Than Thet and Nhem Phann of Prasnet commune, Rolea Ba’ier district, returned from the jungle with three oxcarts of wood they planned to sell. On the way back, they were stopped and detained by local policemen—who accused the three of illegal logging and demanded 160,000 riel (about $40) from them, according to a thumbprinted statement from the villagers.
Acting alone, without the presence of forestry officials, policemen detained the loggers for seven hours in the police station.
“This was not a logging crackdown but, in fact, extortion from the poor,” states the account written by the three men and authorized by their commune chief.
“We are too poor to afford enough food, medicine and money to support our siblings, so we borrowed people’s oxen and cart to go logging,” the letter states.
Provincial Police Chief Touch Narath called the statement a lie, saying that the boys were not poor and that the police officers accused of extorting money denied the allegations.
The chief acknowledged that his police sometimes illegally charged community loggers 5,000 riel (about $1.25), but said he had ordered a halt to such activity.
Similar stories about alleged illegal logging by poor villagers were reported in Kompong Thom province, where local officials said villagers had moved in on the area formerly under the control of the GAT company, whose logging concession was revoked earlier this year.
“There may be some small logging by the poor for their families’ use. If there is, we will find it hard to use force against them because they are poor,” said Roth Sovannara, head of the province’s logging and wildlife crackdown unit.
“But we are educating people about the importance of the forest, and we are disseminating the forestry law.”
The forestry law passed in June allows for some subsistence logging, and the government is in the process of drafting community forestry legislation that would give villagers power to manage nearby forests.