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Pursat Forestry Officials Stole Logs and Sold Them, Villagers Complain

Officials claiming to be in charge of protecting the forests of remote Pursat province have been stealing logs from independent harvesters and selling them to private merchants, an official report and villagers say.

Men claiming to be from a forestry protection agency stole logs from residents of Battambang province who had come to Pursat to cut down trees, according to a report issued by the Cambodian People's Party in Battambang.

Meas Soeum, a CPP commune council member in Mong Russei town, Battambang province, said villagers complained to him they had been robbed of logs they were hired to cut.

The thieves sold all the wood from carts, but returned the cattle hauling those carts to the villagers, Meas Soeum said.

"As for the carts, they sold them too," he said.

It was unclear whether the villagers were illegally cutting the trees themselves.

The alleged thefts underscore the nature of forest depletion in Cambodia, which occurs when common people cut trees for household use or to be sold alongside the road as charcoal, or when illegal companies cut away large swaths of forest.

Villagers said the logs may have been taken by people pretending to be from a forest protection organization, or from the government itself.

"Actually, there are many problems, because the forestry administration officials are also corrupt," one villager said, speaking on condition on anonymity. "They are supposed to control the logging, but instead they seize them from the people and sell them."

The Pursat provincial court briefly detained 5 forestry administration officials earlier this week on murder charges, after a man was shot dead during a crackdown on logging offenses.

"We are trying every day to find every measure to control forestry, and we do not condone anything," Chea Sam Ang, deputy director of the Forestry Administration, said Tuesday.