The beauty of the northeastern forests is apparent along the road through the province of Stung Treng all the way to Ratanakkiri. But the beauty only lasts in a 2-kilometer corridor along the road. Deeper than that, and the tall trees disappear.
“This is the abandoned economic land concession,” Keo Mib, a 39-year-old Phnong hill tribesman said on a recent afternoon in Stung Treng’s Sesan district, pointing to a swath of cleared forest. “The company just left the land after they cleared the forest and took the valuable trees.”
Villagers in these northeastern provinces say they are losing their livelihoods and sacred forests, as more and more private enterprises take their forests.
“We depend on forest products for our living, but now there are almost no forests,” said Keo Mib, who has four children. “When we leave the village, there is only forest [concession] or economic land concessions.”
To many people living here, the forests are imbued with sacred rites and religious significance.
“When our religious forests are disturbed, our ancestors will get angry and thus cause trouble for villagers,” said Chheoung Kea, the chief of nearby Pluk village, which he said has seen 20 consecutive stillbirths after a company cleared a sacred forest.
Most people living along the Sesan and Srepok rivers in Stung Treng and Ratanakkiri come from the minority hill tribes: Phnong, Jarai, Kachork, Brao, Tavet, Krung, Lorn and Tompun. Their lives revolve around nature, including the rivers, fields and, especially, the forest.
"Forests are our lives,” said Romeam Ten, a representative from Tronong community in Rattanakiri province, during a meeting of indigenous leaders in Ratanakkiri’s Banlung town last week. “How can we survive if there are no more forests?”
Ratanakkiri alone has more than 10,000 square kilometers of forest, between 70 percent and 80 percent of the province. But so far, at least 30,000 hectares of forest have been lost to illegal logging, according to Pen Bunnar, a former Ratanakkiri investigator for Adhoc who was recently removed from the province under a deal with the provincial court to avoid charges of inciting villagers.
Since 2004, there have been at least 15,000 chainsaws used in Ratanakkiri to illegally cut trees,” he said.
The province currently has seven economic land concession holders, he said, but most of them do not comply with concession agreements. Such concessions should not be granted in areas where they threaten important forests.
However, the province’s deputy governor, Mom Sareoun, said concession holders replace the trees they cut down with rubber plantations, “so the environment won’t be affected much.”
The villagers themselves are the threat to forests, he said during last week’s Ratanakkiri forest.
“You see dollars and then you cut down the trees for sales,” he told the group of 200 representatives there. “If you don’t cut down the trees, there will be no buyers.”