tomring commune, Kompong Thom province – A new calm has settled on this controversial corner of Tomring’s Prey Long forest, which Britain-based NGO Global Witness claims was the site of a large-scale illegal logging operation that touched the highest levels of government.
The forestry watchdog’s bombastic June 1 report enraged government authorities, who have denied wrongdoing and denounced it as a politically motivated attack on the government.
Since the Global Witness report came out, locals say that the traffic of timber that flowed from Tomring has mostly ceased.
Ou Buthsophoan, director of the Kompong Thom provincial agriculture department, chalks that up to coincidence and says forestry officials regularly raid Tomring for illegal logging.
Either way, locals say there isn’t much forest left to take.
The red roads that run through Sandan district’s Tomring commune are lined with trees, but beyond, locals say much of the forest has been hollowed out.
The question now is just how much forest has been lost and who is responsible.
“We can hear the sound of chainsaws,” Lor Sarheur, a provincial investigator for local rights group Licadho, said Friday. “We hear trees fall. We go inside to check, but there are no people, only trees.”
Some local officials blame “anarchic” villagers, but others claim that local authorities are involved as well as one of the people featured in the controversial Global Witness report.
In the report, Global Witness alleged that large-scale logging went on inside a 6,000-hectare rubber plantation owned by the Chup Rubber Plantation Company in Tomring.
Global Witness alleged that the Seng Keang Company legally cleared timber from within the Chup concession, but then went on to fell trees-some of them protected resin trees, which locals tap as an important source of income-outside the plantation’s boundaries.
“The Tomring formula-officially-sanctioned clear-felling within a valuable forest-provides almost unlimited scope for laundering illegally-logged timber,” Global Witness alleged in the report.
Chhit Boravuth, the lawyer for Seng Keang, who is the owner of the Seng Keang Company, said by telephone that his client’s company was operating lawfully and legally in Tomring. Seng Keang is the ex-wife of Dy Chouch, who is a cousin of Prime Minister Hun Sen. Her brother, Seng Kok Heang, also known by the nickname 95, oversaw wood collection at the plantation, he said.
“The Global Witness report is not true because the company didn’t cut the trees. The company collected wood and the company paid taxes to the government,” Chhit Boravuth said.
Dy Chouch’s lawyer, Son Kaksan, also said that Global Witness’ allegations linking his client to his ex-wife’s company in Tomring were groundless and motivated by his client’s relationship to senior government officials.
Mak Kim Hong, director general of the Chup Rubber Plantation Co, said the Seng Keang Company had government permission to clear felled timber from his plantation.
Mak Kim Hong said that there were some “good trees” in the concession area. But contrary to Global Witness’s claims, the area was not heavily forested with commercially valuable timber, as most of the land had already been cleared by the Khmer Rouge, who planted cotton trees, he maintained.
Today, neat rows of rubber trees stretch as far as the eye can see in Tomring. Today few traces of large-scale logging are evident: an abandoned sawmill in Khaos village, which lies at the edge of the Chup rubber plantation, and a stash of abandoned tree trunks behind the local Forestry Administration office.
However, two local officials interviewed on Saturday alleged that the Seng Keang company had collected timber from beyond the boundaries of the Chup concession, and few deny that logging continued on a smaller scale around Tomring until early this month.
Noun Yan, 53, the CPP’s deputy chief of Tum Ar village, which lies just down the road from the plantation said that trucks to carry wood went into Tomring plantation “but the wood they collected from outside.”
Pang Yat, Funcinpec’s chief representative in Khaos village, alleged that tree cutting took place “1 to 2 km beyond the boundary of the rubber plantation.”
Global Witness said in its report that Seng Keang’s company left Tomring in late 2006, after most of the trees at the Chup plantation had been removed.
Noun Yan confirmed that the area had been quieter lately, particularly since the departure of a representative of the Seng Keang company, who he said had left for Kratie province a couple of months ago.
“There’s not a lot of activity,” Noun Yan said.
“But every few days, I can see a big truck full of wood leaving. Some days I see two trucks, some days one. There’s not much wood anymore,” Noun Yan said, adding that he didn’t know who was behind what was left of the local timber trade.
“We don’t know for sure who’s behind it,” he said. “They buy and sell at night time, there’s no fixed location.”
Tum Ar villager Heang Pring said that until around June 1, he saw at least five trucks loaded with timber from Prey Long pass by each day and the people involved were not to be trifled with.
“These people want dollars. If you come to interrupt them, they will shoot you,” he alleged.
Heang Pring also said that most people in his village cut wood for a living, which they then sold to a well-connected middleman.
Tomring CPP commune council councilor So Dam said it was the local villagers who had hacked into the woods on their own and were responsible for the deforestation.
“It’s illegal, but it’s small scale,” So Dam said, adding that some of the forest clearance is also legal, and is being done to make space for new arrivals to the area.
But Pang Yat, the Funcinpec representative, said villagers alone are not responsible for ongoing logging and that the trade also involves local authorities in the military and police.
Sandan district police chief You Pov denied that either the police or the military have been involved in logging, but admitted that most Tomring villagers cut wood for a living.
Meanwhile, just down the road from the Chup rubber plantation, Tum Ar village is quickly expanding. Wooden planks lean in neat rows on either side of the road, as the surrounding forest is slowly repurposed into wooden homes.
Chhit Sopheap, 39, sat on the floor of her unfinished house, one of the largest in the village. She said she came from Kompong Cham province about a year ago.
The reason she came?
“To do business,” Chhit Sopheap said. “Fishing,” she added.
When all around her the land is dry, where does she fish?
“Drainage pits,” she said. “And ponds.”