svay village, Ratanakkiri province—In this village, the momentum behind anti-logging protests has flagged. The villagers have been informed by government officials there is nothing they can do but acquiesce, and rifts have opened in the village solidarity.
The protest started with a vengeance: villagers hijacked company tractors and contacted NGOs for assistance and legal counseling. Their action forced the Hero Taiwan Co.—one of the country’s most powerful logging outfits—to negotiate with them for rights to a concession the foreign company had already been legally granted by the central government.
But after a few months, the village chief here signed away rights to the forests, despite the protests of other villagers. Illicit money passed to certain commune representatives to grease the agreement, claimed the director of a locally-based NGO. The most vocal protesters were offered jobs with the logging company.
In this village, no one is untouched by a 60,000 hectare logging concession run by Hero Taiwan, which lies six km away.
Villagers were unaware of the logging, said village chief Yorng Chinam. When they went to investigate, they were told it wasn’t their business, Torng Chinam said.
In the end, according to villagers, they were told by provincial officials that they could not overrule Phnom Penh’ decision to grant Hero’s concession, and they should try to get as much compensation out of the company as they could.
Villagers asked Hero for a school, a commune house and a well. Instead of these, they were offered—and took—money, cases of wine, and jobs with the company. Thau Yoeun, one of Svay village’s loudest protesters, became a logger for Hero, a company he despises for cutting down the forest he loves.
“Yes, I got angry, but what could I do?” he said. “I am also poor.
“The one who holds the saw should not be blamed,” he insisted. Behind him, a Svay village elder shook her head slowly.
Hero Taiwan has exploited loopholes in its Ratanakkiri logging contract and disregarded its obligations to the local people who depend upon the forests, according to environmental experts, NGOs, and hill tribe villagers in the area.
“Clearly this is not only an environmental issue, it is a human rights issue,” said Don Muller of the Ratanakkiri information advocacy office. “They’re going in and abusing religious and cultural rights of the villagers.”
The national Forestry Department has seven people with forestry experience stationed in Banlung to monitor Hero for the duration of the concession. And according to Chea Sam Ang, deputy general director of the department, the monitors have given no indication that Hero was either violating its logging plan or taking advantage of locals.
Those monitors, though, receive a double salary: one from the Forestry Department and one from the company they are supposed to monitor, according to Gordon Paterson, director of Non Timber Forest Products Project, Ratanakkiri.
“Basically, they are in the employ of the concession. They get a Forestry Department salary, which is a pittance, but they also get a lot of money from Hero,” Paterson said. “You can’t call them independent monitors.”
On May 11, because of pressure from NTFP and rights workers, villagers from the area met with O’Chum district governor Bien Thvoeun and Seng Hak, a representative of Hero. The senior district official and company representative were accompanied by armed guards—which Thav Youen interpreted as a show of force. When the meeting was over, all the village and commune heads thumbprinted the bottom of a sloppily handwritten document which essentially handed over the forest management to the company and Forestry Department monitors.
“The villagers gave their thumbprints under intimidation,” said Muller and NTFP representatives. “Representatives from Hero, the provincial police with armed guards, said they had to sign.”
Thav Yoeun said that he denounced the contract and spoke out loudly at the meeting.
He was not the only one.
Nang Lau, a Svay village elder, said she objected when the chief was pressed to give his thumbprint. But she said that the officials told her that because there was only one prime minister now, there was no one to protest to. They also told her that protesters could be sent to jail, because this was a legally granted concession.
In return, the villagers were promised several village meeting houses. Hero also agreed to appoint village representatives to help oversee the cutting. They were supposed to be reimbursed for food and travel, but not to be paid for their supervisory role.
One of these representatives was Thav Yoeun. On the agreement, he is listed as a village head, appointed to oversee the company’s cutting practices. This allows Hero to claim that villagers are actively monitoring the felling of each tree..
But Thav Yoeun said he is only a regular logger and has no say in management. He is given a logger’s wages, paid for by Hero, and the cost of meals are actually deducted from his meager salary.
“The people who put the marks on the trees should be blamed,” he said. “As long as there is a mark on a tree, it has to be cut.”
Complaints alleging intimidation were made in writing to a local human rights group in Banlung. Men Sara, co-ordinator of Adhoc Ratanakkiri, said that the complaint was forwarded to Phnom Penh at the end of June, and no response has been received.
In addition, Adhoc conducted its own investigation in which it found that authorities acted in accordance with regulations, Men Sara said. He said that the villagers didn’t understand that the company had valid authorization from the government. Some villages had worked with Adhoc beforehand to set up associations to protect the forests, but villages in Poey commune, including Svay village, didn’t bother. The land was signed over legally to Hero, the rights worker said.
Muller said that there was no way Svay village could have made those arrangements in time. “They only found out when Hero showed up to build the logging road,” he said.
Said Men Sara, “Although the government gives final decision, people have the right to protest, even though they won’t get results.”
He wouldn’t say whether the hill tribe villagers should have been consulted at the beginning. He wouldn’t comment on the fact that Cambodia signed the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, which guarantees their right to manage their tribal lands.
Another defender of Hero is the Forestry Department, which approved its management plan and exploitation permit.
Chea Sam Ang said the Hero and the Forestry Department are trying to co-operate with local NGOs in order to get villagers to participate in monitoring. He also said that the villagers’ protests amounted to extortion.
“The local people are trying to get as much as they can from the concessionaire,” he said. “They stopped a truck, and then asked for a lot of money. Giving money to these individuals is paying the wrong way.”
But the company did agree to build the schools, a commune office, and a commune meeting house. One was supposedly already built for a village, though Chea Sam Ang could not recall the name of the village.
There were no new buildings near Svay village. Village chief Yourng Chinam said there were no new buildings anywhere in Poey Commune.
No one at Hero could be reached for comment, either in the Banlung offices or on Phnom Penh. Guards at the sawmill in Banlung sent Cambodia Daily reporters away without relaying requests for an interview to the offices, and insisted that another office “down the road” would deal with questions. That office did not exist.
The overarching issue here, experts agree, is the future of forestry practices in Cambodia. Graeme Brown, an Australian forester working for the Ministry of Environment in Banlung, said that what is needed is independent monitoring, and months of training of local people in technical forestry and negotiating skills.
Brown has written several reports cataloging Hero’s forestry practices and treatment of villagers, and he agrees with NTFP that much needs to be done to ensure that future forestry concessions are run with more consideration for non-timber values such as rattan resources, wildlife, and indigenous people.
Men Sara said that the Hero concession has the potential to be a world-class operation, and Brown, Paterson, and Muller agree that the potential was there. But, Paterson said, because of the exploitation of loopholes and local people, monitors and NGOs are now treating this as a “patch-up job.”
“The ultimate goal is to get the Forestry Department to recognize that before any concessions are approved, signed, a logging plan drawn up, long before trees are marked, there is a comprehensive survey about people in the area who use the forest for their living,” he said.