One of Cambodia’s largest remaining primary forests and a source of income for hundreds of thousands of people, Prey Long is under threat from industrial farming, according to the Prey Long People’s Network, which demonstrated in Phnom Penh yesterday.
Gathered in the city’s designated demonstration zone in Daun Penh district, about 50 villagers dressed in green from four northeastern provinces sang songs and chanted slogans, appealing to the government and public to protect Prey Long forest.
“We want the Forestry Administration to help preserve Prey Long forever,” Sean Khoeun, 53, said after pausing from singing through a megaphone for a dancing crowd of demonstrators.
“My song is to show that Prey Long is a Cambodian forest and historical heritage from our ancestors,” said Ms Khoeun, a Kuy indigenous minority villager from Preah Vihear province’s Chey Sen district.
Chhieng Vuthy, another Prey Long People’s Network member, said the group had submitted a petition with 28,208 thumbprints to the National Assembly, the prime minister’s Cabinet, the Environment Ministry and the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy yesterday.
“I want the government to recognize the problems of the communities in the four provinces,” said Mr Vuthy, who had traveled to the demonstration from Kompong Thom province’s Sandan district.
In a statement the group asked the government to withdraw current economic land concessions in Prey Long and return the forest back to local communities, while it also sought official recognition from the government.
About 200,000 people, mostly members of the Kuy indigenous minority, live in 339 villages in and around Prey Long forest, according to the group, which has 120 members in local forest communities.
Located between the Mekong and Stung Sen rivers, Prey Long’s landscape covers parts of Stung Treng, Preah Vihear, Kratie and Kompong Thom provinces, with a core area of around 135,000 hectares of pristine forest.
It is the largest remaining lowland evergreen forest in mainland Southeast Asia but it is not within an official conservation area.
A 2010 study by the University of Copenhagen said Prey Long was home to several globally threatened large mammals, such as the Asian elephant, clouded leopard, marbled cat, Malayan sun bear and the pileated gibbon, while the tiger species had been seen in the area as late as 2006.
Although Prey Long has suffered illegal logging in the past, four industrial farming concessions and 27 mining exploration licenses granted in recent years have raised urgent concerns among local villagers, according to the Prey Long People’s Network.
Most recently, several hundred villagers in March were involved in a tense, three-day stand off with armed security forces, when they tried to stop the clearing of a 6,000-hectare concession by the Vietnamese rubber company CRCK in Kompong Thom province’s Sandan district. Another Vietnamese company, PNT Co Ltd, has reportedly also begun felling trees in Preah Vihear’s Rovieng district.
Tapping of resin in Prey Long forest is key to traditional livelihoods but the group said that, according to its research, 243,644 resin trees have so far been lost due to logging and concessions.
Ath Oeun, a villager from Preah Vihear province’s Chey Sen district, said her community had recorded the loss of 20,000 resin trees since 2009. “We work there everyday and we learn that there is obvious destruction of our resin trees,” she said.
Chheng Kimsun, chief of the Forestry Administration, which administers Prey Long as private state land, acknowledged that the area had lost forest cover but he stopped short of blaming private companies for environmental damage.
“We have seen serious incidents because there are bad people who go to destroy the forest,” he said.
Mr Kimsun said his administration would propose turning Prey Long into a protected area that could generate international climate change funds as it stores large amounts of carbon. “After we finish all studies, we will make a sub-decree to protect [Prey Long] and sell carbon” credits, he said.
However, Ouch Leng, land program officer at the human rights group Adhoc, said he had little hope that the government would change its policy and stop from allocating land concessions that affect forests and local farmlands.