A group of 56 rangers from the Ministry of Environment last week completed a one-month training course in Phnom Penh run by the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) to help save Cambodia’s protected areas from illegal loggers, a first for the country’s rangers.
Environment Ministry spokesman Sao Sopheap said on Sunday the rangers were drawn from 23 protected areas under the ministry’s jurisdiction—others fall under the purview of the Ministry of Agriculture—and finished their training on Thursday.
While the rangers have received prior training from the ministry and NGOs, Mr. Sopheap said this was the first time RCAF has been involved. The one-month course was run by Environment Minister Say Sam Al and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s eldest son, Hun Manet, who serves both as deputy chair of the RCAF Joint Staff and head of the Defense Ministry’s counterterrorism taskforce.
“We have an agreement with the RCAF Joint Staff and the national counterterrorism task force to improve the patrolling of our protected areas, especially to reduce forest crime,” the spokesman said. “We hope the trainees will share what they learned with the other rangers.”
The rangers, though armed, cannot make arrests, he added, and would still have to report any illegal logging to police. He said the rangers learned valuable skills, however, including how to survive in the forest for several days should they get lost while on patrol.
Illegal logging is rife in Cambodia’s natural parks, wildlife sanctuaries and protected forests. Villagers and NGOs note that rangers and soldiers charged with their care are often the very people involved, and are regularly arrested while smuggling illegally logged wood across the country.
Chhay Thy, coordinator for rights group Adhoc in Ratanakkiri province, a hot spot for illegal logging in Cambodia, said the latest training course would change nothing in the absence of a genuine will to stamp out the illicit trade at the very highest levels of government.
“We have seen the prime minister give orders to take action against forest crime before, but it still continues because the local authorities don’t implement the orders,” he said.
Mr. Sopheap said RCAF, as an institution, was qualified to teach others about fighting illegal logging despite the failings of individual soldiers.
“We cannot say that RCAF, the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, has done the wrong thing…only the individuals,” he said. “So the individuals have to face the law.”
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)