Environmental activists insisted the government resume community patrols in the fast-disappearing Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, as they marked International Forest Day on Sunday.
Activists have been pushing the government to allow groups like the Prey Lang Community Network, which ran forest patrols till last year, to monitor illegal logging activities in the protected area.
The government has prevented groups from patrolling the sanctuary claiming they were unregistered or didn’t have the requisite permission to enter the protected area.
Heng Sros, a forest activist in Cambodia, said natural resources in the Prey Lang forest were being lost at a rapid pace, often in collaboration with corrupt local officials.
The activist was arrested by Environment Ministry rangers with four others, including Goldman Environmental Prize winner Ouch Leng, for documenting illegal logging and attempting to educate people about the Prey Lang forest.
This arrest mirrored the arrest of environment activists, including Heng Sros and Ouch Leng, for using highlighting increased deforestation by private companies.
“I have interviewed workers who transport the wood from Prey Lang, and they admitted that their bosses paid and bribed the environmental officials to transport the timber,” Heng Sros said on Monday.
Prey Lang spans four different provinces – Kratie, Preah Vihear, Stung Treng, and Kampong Thom – and is one of the last lowland evergreen forests in Southeast Asia. Activists allege that the timber is being transported on behalf of private companies like Think Biotech and PNT.
Heng Sros alleged that PNT, which is a subsidiary of Think Biotech, was transporting timber from within the protected area on Preah Vihear, whereas the parent company was operating logging operations in Kratie.
The activist said the Ministry of Environment did not want the public to know that environmental officers were involved in forest crimes, which is why it was preventing entry to the sanctuary.
“Nowadays, we do not enter the Prey Lang area often because we have been arrested and we were warned not to enter the Prey Lang area without permission from the Ministry of Environment,” he said.
VOA Khmer could not reach representatives at Think Biotech for comment on Monday.
In late February, Amnesty International released a statement, accompanied by satellite imagery, showing an increase in deforestation and road construction within the protected area, which often lead to further degradation of the forest.
Svay Song, a 57-year-old member of the Prey Lang Community Network in Kratie province, said timber transport activities in Kratie province have slowed down a little after the arrest of Ouch Leng and Heng Sros in February.
He said the government should allow access to forest patrol groups.
“Please be informed that the perpetrators [of forest crimes] are only afraid of the Prey Lang people, the Prey Lang community network. They are not afraid of the authorities,” he said.
“It’s because the community network is clean with its work. It’s clean because if they confiscate machinery, they will not sell that machinery [back to offenders] after the confiscation.”
He said that the Ministry of Environment often blames the communities for not being loyal to the government in conserving the remaining forests in Prey Lang, but continues to prevent them from patrolling the forest.
Ministry of Environment Spokesperson Neth Pheaktra said that once the Prey Lang Community Network is “properly registered” it can commence patrols, but after notifying the ministry.
“The law states that there must be an agreement on cooperation in the protection and conservation of natural resources, and [anyone] wants to enter this area must provide notification in advance as well as cooperate with the authorities," he said.
The spokesperson refuted claims that local environmental officers were involved in allowing illegal logging and that activists were prone to making unsubstantiated allegations.
“About the allegations, please present evidence and clarify who exactly is [doing these activities]? Do not make a general assessment.”