Amnesty International said Cambodia’s Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary was at “grave risk” and urged the government to lift its arbitrary ban on environmental defenders who patrol the protected forests.
The international rights group released a statement on Thursday and accompanied it with recent satellite imagery from February, showing rapid deforestation in the protected forest, which spans four provinces.
Amnesty International added that the Cambodian government insistence on preventing community patrollers from entering the forest was putting the protected area at further risk.
“While Cambodian authorities prevent the Prey Lang Community Network and environmental defenders from protecting the Prey Lang wildlife sanctuary, illegal loggers are clearing land with impunity,” said Richard Pearshouse, head of crisis and the environment at Amnesty International.
“The Cambodian authorities must allow these environmental defenders to resume their patrols and carry out their vital work preventing further destruction of one of the world’s most important rainforests, which is disappearing before our eyes.”
The group said the satellite imagery findings matched those released by the University of Maryland in partnership with Global Forest Watch.
The deforestation alerts showed widespread forest clearings during 2020 and early 2021. In 2019, Prey Lang lost 7,511 hectares of tree cover, an increase of 73% compared to the previous year, according to the University of Maryland.
Last year, the Cambodian government prevented the Prey Lang Community Network, local communities and civil society groups from conducting a tree-blessing ceremony in the forest,
The PLCN was told it was unregistered and prevented from entering the forest without prior approval from the ministry.
Early this month, the Ministry of Environment rangers arrested five forestry activists who were wrapping trees in Buddhist cloth and collecting evidence of widespread illegal logging occurring inside Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, according to the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
The arrested activists, one of whom was Goldman Environmental Prize winner Ouch Leng, were detained inside the wildlife sanctuary documenting deforestation in Kratie province. The activists were released only after thumb-printing a contract ordering them to not undertake any conservation activities inside the protected area, or to share footage, photos or information with other organizations, without permission from authorities.
Amnesty International also criticized a proposed power line that will cut through the protected area, to provide an electrical connection from Phnom Penh to Laos. The group said clearing the forest for the power line could further exacerbate illegal logging activities in the forest.
Sok Phloak, a representative for the Prey Lang Network in Kampong Thom province, said there was a daily increase in logging in the protected area, and that the government should allow his group to resume patrols in the forest.
“If [the situation] remains like today, the forest will be destroyed,” he said. “Before, we were able to get into the forests at least two times per month. It helped reduce logging.”
He said the group did not patrol the forest for any monetary benefits and was only interested in preserving the protected area.
The government has consistently alleged that patrol groups and environmental activists have raised illegal logging concerns only to garner the attention of international groups and to secure funding from them.
Khem Sokhy, a member of Prey Lang Network in Preah Vihear province, said it was counterintuitive for the government to ban patrol groups while claiming that it wants to protect the Prey Lang forest.
“If the government has the clear will to protect the forests, they must not ban the protectors who support the government,” he said.
The Prey Lang forest covers approximately 500,000 hectares and spans four provinces – Kratie, Stung Treng, Kampong Thom, and Preah Vihear. More than 250,000 people live in and around Prey Lang, most of whom identify as Indigenous Kuy, and the protected area is one of the last, and largest remaining, evergreen forests in the country.
In June last year, the researchers at the University of Copenhagen released an open letter reporting a 73 percent increase in deforestation in 2019 at the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, compared to 2018.
The University of Copenhagen’s open letter used data from the University of Maryland’s Global Forest Change dataset and other data points to show that 7,510 hectares of forestland were lost at the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary in 2019, the worst loss since 2016 when the area was designated a protected area.