sandan district, Kompong Thom province – After walking and camping in the jungle for more than a week, Tha Sros and hundreds of other villagers finally reached the winding red dirt road that lead to the rubber plantation of Vietnamese-owned CRCK company, which has cleared a vast, 6,000-hectare swathe out of Prey Long forest.
As dusk began to settle over the towering forest around them on Thursday evening, the villagers—most of whom are indigenous minority Kuy—marched on, carrying cardboard banners, traditional reed baskets and bags carrying food and water that sustained them during their long march.
“I walked 11 days to reach the company,” said Ms Sros, 55, who had come to this area in northern Kompong Thom province from her village in Stung Treng province.
“We had difficulties when we were in the forest, but we still continued,” she said, while keeping up a steady pace to reach the plantation.
“We want to try to stop the company from cutting the resin trees because our Kuy people in the four provinces want to keep their resin trees for the next generation.”
Ms Sros was one of about 300 villagers who had gathered from Preah Vihear, Kompong Thom, Stung Treng and Kratie provinces as part of a campaign organized by the Prey Long People’s Network.
The group wants the government to protect Prey Long—a 750,000-hectare lowland evergreen forest landscape that is among the largest of its kind in Southeast Asia—as it faces the destructive forces of agro-business, mining and illegal logging.
The Prey Long People’s Network says that illegal logging in the area is rampant but largely ignored by authorities.
About 200,000 people rely on resin trees in the forest for their livelihood, but about 230,000 of these trees have been cleared in recent years, the group claims, while the CRCK rubber concession alone will supposedly clear 20,000 additional resin trees.
Resin trees, from which products such as varnish are produced, are protected by law as a source of income for traditional livelihoods and can only be cut down if local communities are compensated. But villagers say none of them have received any compensation.
Ms Sros said her village had lost “several hundred resin trees” due to deforestation, adding that the campaign had united ethnic minority villagers in their resolve to protect Prey Long forest and the resin trees. “It’s a good thing that we have a big group of people to campaign to protect the forest. If we try to protect it with a few people, we will not succeed,” she said.
Local authorities, however, say the campaign activities are illegal, as they are carried out without government approval, and dozens of armed police were deployed in the area of the plantation this week to disrupt the demonstrators’ activities.
On Thursday evening, however, as human rights workers and reporters looked on, about 15 unarmed military officers, military police and police stood facing the hundreds of protesters at the entrance to the plantation.
After a heated 20-minute standoff, the officers looked on helplessly as villagers swarmed into the plantation, where they stayed overnight to search for evidence showing that CRCK had felled their resin trees.
Seng Sokheng, a Kompong Thom member of the Prey Long People’s Network, said villagers had left the plantation on Friday morning and were heading for a Sandan district town when they heard that provincial authorities had banned a public forum the villagers had planned to hold on Monday.
“We canceled the public forum …because the villagers attacked and illegally went into the company’s land at night,” deputy provincial governor Uch Sam On said by telephone on Friday.
Phan Sopheng, Kompong Thom provincial police chief, warned that the two activists should stop involving themselves with the grassroots campaigners.
The police chief was referring to Chut Wutty, director of the Natural Resources Protection Group, and Chhim Savuth, program officer of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, who have both been providing food and medical supplies to the villagers.
“If Mr Wutty and Mr Savuth continue their actions, we will arrest them,” the police chief said.
Mr Savuth said he feared being arrested by the police and had left the area. “Authorities accuse me of being the [campaign’s] leader,” he said. “If we still hold the public forum, villagers will face arrest.”
With Monday’s forum canceled and the pressure from authorities increasing, the marching villagers, now exhausted, have decided that the campaign should be suspended until after the rice harvest, said Mr Sokheng from the Prey Long People’s Network.
“Now, we are facing a difficult situation with the authorities, and they [the villagers] are also tired,” he said. “They plan to protest again after they complete their rice harvest, and then there will be more people to join with this campaign.”
Asked if the marchers had achieved any of their goals, Mr Sokheng said, “This is the first time that [Prey Long] villagers have campaigned to stop the illegal loggers. It’s a good thing that villagers campaigned in order to show their will to protect the forest. They will not abandon their determination.”