Villagers in Mondolkiri province filed a complaint with rights group Adhoc on Friday, saying that they had discovered loggers illegally felling trees in their local community forest who claimed to be working for businessman Try Pheap.
Mr. Pheap, who owns plantations, mining concessions and special economic zones across the country, was granted the right this year to purchase all wood logged in economic land concessions in Ratanakkiri province, as well as nearly 5,000 cubic meters of confiscated wood across the country.
Environmental activists have expressed concern that the practice of granting firms monopolies on purchasing wood encourages illegal logging by providing easy cover to loggers, and accelerates Cambodia’s already critical rate of deforestation.
Sok Ratha, Mondolkiri coordinator for Adhoc, said he and about 20 local villagers found 89 pieces of freshly sawn luxury grade timber piled up on the edge of the Andong Kraloeng community forest in O’Reang district on Friday and Saturday, after the villagers filed a complaint with his NGO.
“Each piece was around 3 meters to 4 meters long and more than 30 cm in diameter,” he said. “We don’t know who owns the timber, but we saw the letter ‘N’ stamped on the wood.”
Mr. Ratha said they also found a patch of roughly 20 hectares inside the forest which the villagers said had been cleared in the past two or three months.
Chich Royoeup, one of the villagers who joined the two-day patrol, said he saw two groups of about seven people each logging the same area with chainsaws about a week ago.
“I don’t know if Try Pheap is involved in buying the timber, but the loggers told me that they cut the trees for his company,” he said.
Kvan Troeun, the chief of Sen Monorom commune, said she knew of the illegal logging inside the community forest but was powerless to stop it.
“I went there last night and I saw police and military police standing there to guard three [Toyota] Camry cars getting ready to transport the timber,” she said. “I have reported to the district governor about the illegal logging, but he hasn’t taken action.”
District governor Sunh Son said he also knew about the loggers but added that their nocturnal activities made them tough to stop.
“We have tried to stop the illegal logging but it’s hard to do because they work at night,” he said.
Kep Koth, who oversees Mondolkiri for the Forestry Administration, said he was sending officers to the area today to investigate.
“I received the information from Adhoc about the illegal logging and I assigned five officers to go there [today] to find out whether the illegal logging is really happening in that forest,” he said.
The manager of Try Pheap’s business operations in Mondolkiri, Ek Sovan, denied that his firm had any involvement in the illegal logging going on inside the Andong Kraloeng community forest and blamed it on opportunists using Mr. Pheap’s name as cover.
“I have a headache because people have been using my company’s name to buy wood, but I have informed the provincial authorities to take action according to the law against whoever uses my company,” he said.
Mr. Sovan said the firm was only buying illegally cut timber that had already been confiscated by the Forestry Administration. The Administration revealed last week that Mr. Pheap had paid the government $3.4 million in June for the exclusive rights to nearly 5,000 cubic meters of confiscated wood from every province.
Villagers and NGOs in neighboring Ratanakkiri province have also been reporting a significant increase in illegal logging in protected forests in recent months by loggers claiming to be working for Mr. Pheap. As in Mondolkiri, representatives for Mr. Pheap there have denied involvement and blamed locals who were misusing the businessman’s name.
Villagers in Preah Vihear province said wood brokers and illegal loggers they encountered on a recent community patrol of Prey Long forest were also claiming to be working for Mr. Pheap.
(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)