Despite orders by district, provincial and agriculture ministry officials for Pheapimex Co Ltd to suspend forest clearing in Pursat province, villagers said Monday that clearing continues and that the company has expanded operations to Kompong Chhnang province.
The company was ordered to stop work after villagers from Pursat and Kompong Chhnang provinces were the target of a grenade attack Nov 13 as they protested against the clearing in Ansa Chambak commune in Pursat’s Krakor district, provincial and Agriculture Ministry officials said.
“The committee from the central ministry and provincial committee ordered [Pheapimex] to stop temporarily until they find a resolution,” Kith Seng, director of the planning department at the Ministry of Agriculture, said Monday.
Locals and environmentalists have opposed Pheapimex’s plans to clear forest and plant eucalyptus on more than 315,000 hectares in Kompong Chhnang and Pursat. They claim the project is illegal, as the plantation is more than 30 times the legal size limit for land concessions and includes forest that should be protected by law.
Though the company stopped clearing briefly on Saturday, local villagers said it had resumed by late Sunday.
“The forest clearing is very violent and much faster than before,” said villager Um Huot, who has been active in protesting against the company.
Kith Seng and Krakor district Governor Srey Kosol said they had not heard about continued clearing, but added that authorities would investigate.
Um Huot also said district and commune police had visited villages in Ansa Chambak commune Sunday, summoning male residents for questioning about the grenade attack. During questioning, police insinuated that he and another outspoken community representative, Loek Phuong, were behind the grenade attack, Um Huot said.
“Villagers were questioned about what suspects they saw before or after the attack and then police asked why didn’t Um Huot and Loek Phuong shout for help after the attack over loud speakers,” Um Huot said. “They also said villagers were behind the attack, not the company.”
Krakor district police Chief Born Vanna said police questioned villagers this weekend, but did not accuse anyone of staging the attack.
Meanwhile, villagers in Kompong Chhnang’s Tuk Phos district said Monday that forestry officials and Pheapimex company representatives have encouraged local villagers to help clear the disputed forest land, offering $50 per hectare once it is cleared.
“Forestry officials have allowed some villagers to bring chain saws and other materials to clear the forest…. Those villagers started clearing two or three days ago,” said Chea Phoan, a resident of Anchanh village, Kraing Skea commune.
Provincial agriculture department officials also met with villagers in Tuk Phos district on Nov 16 and Nov 18, and told them they had no right to protest forest clearing because the government had authorized the company’s project in the district, he said.
Kompong Chhnang Provincial Governor Sou Phirin declined to comment, directing questions to his cabinet chief Men Thoeurn, who denied officials intimidated villagers or that the company was encouraging locals to clear land.
“I have never heard that Kompong Chhnang residents feel unhappy about the land concession signing by the government to the Pheapimex company. Tuk Phos district and commune officials have never threatened or asked villagers to clear the forest. Actually, the company has the legal right to clear it,” he said.