The Ministry of Environment and Pursat officials have criticized conservation group Wildlife Alliance for burning the vehicle of a Pursat resident for allegedly transporting illegal timber.
On August 5, a team from Wildlife Alliance confronted two tractor-driven carts, called “koyun” in Khmer, according to a provincial police statement. It added that the Wildlife Alliance team, which comprised three Cambodians and one foreign national, burnt one of the two-wheel tractors.
“It was not related to our authorities,” read the August 8 statement.
Sarun Chanthy, Pursat provincial police chief, said officials had investigated the incident and found that the Wildlife Alliance team had burned the “koyun,” but refused to comment any further.
“You can ask Wildlife Alliance. It is not related to our police activity,” he said. “Their activity went over the line.”
Ministry of Environment spokesperson Neth Pheaktra said burning the tractor was not part of forest protection measures under the Ministry of Environment.
“The ones who burnt it are responsible for that. The activity of Wildlife Alliance was not legal,” he said. “We also advise Wildlife Alliance to oversee their staff’s work.”
A four-minute video of the incident was posted on Facebook by the Ministry of Interior official Pheng Vannak, who runs a popular social account. The video has seen angry reactions from social media users against Wildlife Alliance’s actions.
Kea Teav, the villager whose tractor was burned, said she was collecting deadwood on August 5, around 13 kilometers from her home in Svaysor commune. She said the Wildlife Alliance team confronted her and, after a heated exchange, the foreign national burned her tractor.
“The foreigner asked for a lighter and then he took gasoline from the cart and he burned my tractor,” said Kea Teav, the mother of two children.
Kea Teav is concerned about loan payments she has to make for the two-wheel tractor. She had taken a $3,000 loan from microfinance institution Hattha Kaksekar to finance the tractor.
“It is too cruel. Other villagers also transport the woods,” she added.
While Suwanna Gauntlett, founder, and CEO of Wildlife Alliance, said it was a mistake to burn the tractor, she claimed that Kea Teav was engaging in illegal logging and that in such cases “law enforcement” is needed.
“First of all, it was our mistake to have burned the Koyun. I have educated our team on this,” she said.
“It is perfectly normal that the people conducting illegal logging are not happy to be stopped, villagers always complain, and their timber is rarely just ‘firewood’.”
She added that the Wildlife Alliance team found that Kea Teav was transporting a “large quantity” of sawn trees, around three cubic meters, and claimed that the wood was coming from the Cardamoms.
“They used the term “firewood”, but thousands of trees are being cut under this term,” she said in an email.
She added that the Cardamom national park was being destroyed by “firewood” logging, which was then transported to either charcoal factories on the way to Phnom Penh, or to garment factories in Phnom Penh. She did not elaborate on which garment factories were using this wood.
Kea Teav rejected Suwanna Gauntlett’s accusations and reiterated that the wood she cut was not from the protected area.
“It is not big trees like Prey Lang trees,” she said. “Other people also transport timber. Why burn only my tractor? It is very unfair.”
Chan Sai, commune chief for Svaysor, said there were no big trees in the area surrounding the area and that villagers normally cut and collected small trees.
“The firewood is small. They are not big,” he said.