Exposure to the elements is causing villagers to fall ill
sandan district, Kompong Thom province – For the several hundred villagers who have been camping and patrolling in a remote part of the jungle in northern Kompong Thom for several days as part of their campaign to save Prey Long forest, the strain is starting to show.
Human rights workers say that dozens of villagers, who all live around Prey Long forest, have fallen ill because they have been living in rough outdoor conditions while seizing piles of illegally logged timber and several chainsaws.
Last week, about 300 members of the Prey Long People’s Network, a group of activists, began walking from their villages in Preah Vihear, Stung Treng and Kompong Thom provinces to a part of Prey Long forest called O’Chrok, an area in the north of Sandan district that has reportedly been heavily targeted by illegal loggers.
The villagers have been patrolling this area since Sunday, and since then, they have come across three logging camps where they seized three chainsaws and large piles of cut luxury wood that have been left behind by the fleeing loggers, Chheng Sophors, senior monitor at human rights group Licadho, said yesterday.
“When the people went there, the loggers ran away,” said Mr Sophors, who had just returned from O’Chrok to Sandan town after driving five hours on a motorbike. “There are a lot of huge illegal logs there. They plan to burn all this wood.”
The villagers—most of whom are indigenous minority Kuy—had walked for up to five days from their respective villages to reach the O’Chrok area and had been sleeping outdoors, causing many to fall ill, he said. He added that a group of villagers from Kratie province had not arrived due to unknown reasons.
“About 50 villagers got sick with fever, cold and malaria, because they lacked plastic tarpaulins and hammocks” for camping, Mr Sophors said.
Licadho and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) have supplied the group with basic medical supplies and camping materials, and have also left a medically trained staffer with them.
The villagers could not be reached by telephone due to their remote location.
These grassroots activities are part of a weeklong campaign by the Prey Long People’s Network. Later this week, the villagers plan to march on Vietnamese rubber company CRCK’s 6,000-hectare concession in Sandan district. They will also march at sawmill operations in Sandan town in order to hold a protest against the company’s involvement in forest clearing. The campaign will end with a public forum on the issues that face Prey Long forest.
Illegal logging, economic land concessions and mining are threatening the 750,000-hectare Prey Long forest, which is the largest remaining lowland evergreen forest in mainland Southeast Asia. An estimated 200,000 people rely on Prey Long’s resin trees and other non-timber forest products for their traditional livelihoods.
The campaigning villagers want the government to halt all current and future land and mining concessions, and they demand that Prey Long receives protected forest status.
Chhim Savuth, project coordinator for CCHR, said that so far local authorities have not interfered with the villagers’ campaign, but he added that this was likely to change when villagers begin their march toward the rubber company and the local sawmills.
“We expect that police and military police will be there when the people arrive at the company CRCK,” he said, adding, “We came to monitor for any human rights abuses.”
Uch Sam On, deputy governor of Kompong Thom province, said authorities had been unpleasantly surprised by the campaign, adding that villagers had “gathered illegally in the forest, because they don’t have permission from local authorities for their demonstration.”
Mr Sam On said provincial officials planned to go and meet the villagers today to order them to return to their villages because authorities deemed their campaign activities “wrong.”
“We will instruct them on which of their activities are wrong and which are right: We will tell them to go home,” he said.
The campaign has also been felt in Phnom Penh, where 11 young activists, who are part of the Cambodian Youth Network, yesterday dressed as characters from the Hollywood blockbuster “Avatar” and prayed for an end to the destruction of the forest.
In the past, authorities have shown little patience for villagers’ attempts to stop the clearing of forest in Prey Long. In March, armed military police broke up a protest by hundreds of villagers against the clearing of forested land inside CRCK’s rubber concession, while in September local officials and military police chased local villagers in Sandan commune out of a legal education workshop about the Forestry Law.
(Additional reporting by Sok Sidon and Alice Foster)