lumphat district, Ratanakkiri province – When a small group of loggers began cutting trees near the Bru hilltribe village of Kalorng on June 12, the local residents decided to take conservation matters into their own hands.
They formed a 40-strong group and descended on the loggers, confiscating the offending chainsaw and newly-cut timber.
“After we confiscated the trees, we lodged complaints [against the loggers] to the provincial court through Adhoc, but the court did not consider our complaints,” said Kalorng community leader Bang Kating, who took part in the local, impromptu effort to protect their forest.
“However, [the court] did consider the loggers’ complaints against us,” he said last week.
In a twist of events that has baffled the Bru villagers, four have been questioned—on Aug 30 and on Sept 6—at the Ratanakkiri Provincial Court regarding their confiscation of the chainsaw and timber.
Now, Provincial Chief Prosecutor Mey Sokhan is giving the Bru two weeks to return the loggers’ haul of around 3.5 cubic meters of wood.
“The villagers have no right to confiscate property from individuals. Now I am summoning villagers, the commune chief and the district governor for questioning,” Mey Sokhan said by phone on Tuesday.
“After Pchum Ben [ending Oct 4], if villagers continue to refuse to return the wood, it means the confiscation is illegal, and the court can take it back,” he said.
With the prosecutor accusing the villagers of establishing their “own authority,” Bang Kating explained last week what happened on June 12.
“We saw three men and asked them where they got permission to cut the trees. The loggers said ‘I don’t have any documents with me.’ We told them we were confiscating their equipment and timber until they could prove the legality,” Bang Kating said.
One of the loggers returned to the village twice for his wood and chainsaw, but he didn’t come alone, Kalorng Village Chief Leum Phork said.
Accompanied by the Lbang I commune police chief and two other police officers, Leum Phork said the villagers decided to offer the logger, Touch Hoeun, a compromise: Share half the timber with the village. But the logger refused, Leum Phork said.
Returning a second time, Touch Hoeun was accompanied by two military police officers, one carrying an AK-47, and a letter signed July 18 by Lumphat district governor Khlout Son ordering villagers to return the wood and the chainsaw.
Standing on principle, the villagers have refused to budge ever since.
“The man who cut the timber has a house that needs to be rebuilt, but the wood he cuts has not been used to repair his house,” Leum Phork said.
“If men really want timber to build a house, the community will allow them to cut down trees,” he said. “[Touch Hoeun] asked permission from local authorities to cut for his house, but he just cuts to sell.”
Leum Phork added that he did not know how much timber had been cut, but suspected there had been frequent shipments to provincial towns and neighboring Stung Treng province between April and June.
In a letter dated April 3, Touch Hoeun did request permission to cut timber for house construction in Lbang I commune. The commune chief, Lumphat district governor and Banlung district forestry chief signed the letter.
Adhoc provincial coordinator Pen Bonnar pointed out in a June 13 letter to the provincial governor that the request never received the critical approval from the director of the provincial forestry department.
In addition, Commune Chief Phoy Phong noted that the letter he signed asked for permission to cut timber in an area different from the location where the loggers were stopped.
“The law is not to compromise,” Pen Bonnar said at a community meeting held in the village schoolhouse last week, where 42 residents of three neighboring villages discussed the current case and ways to handle logging conflicts in the future.
“By the law, trees in the community can only be used in the community. If the law permitted outsiders to cut, the trees would be gone,” Pen Bonnar said. “The law does not allow people to cut just because they have a letter.”