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Indigenous Communities Say Authorities Collude With Loggers

Experts say as little as 30 percent of the country’s forest cover remains, while logging continues to be a problem, file photo.
Experts say as little as 30 percent of the country’s forest cover remains, while logging continues to be a problem, file photo.
Indigenous villagers in Mondolkiri province say relevant authorities that are supposed to crack down on forestry crimes instead collude with logging companies and powerful businessmen, allowing them cut down trees.

That has put their forest tribal traditions and livelihoods, which are dependent on forests, in jeopardy, villagers here in Srea Preah commune, Keo Seima district, say.

“People in this village depend mainly on resin trees to make a living,” said Vann Khveurk, a villager of the Bunong tribe. “So when the company came in to log whole trees and clear the land, what did the people get? Nothing.”

Villagers here say a Vietnamese company called Bin Peuk I has been behind most of the logging and is doing it with government permission. (Representatives of Bin Peuk I could not be reached for comment.)

“So what can we as the people do?” Vann Khveurk said. “With the forest lost, we can only live on the streets and let passing cars run over us. We have no more trust now.”

Mondolkiri is one of the last heavily forested provinces in Cambodia, and it is here where most indigenous tribes live. They depend of the forest, harvesting honey or vines, leaves or resin, to make a living. That existence is in jeopardy in many parts of the province, though, where rubber plantations and other development has moved in, accompanied by logging, legal and otherwise.

Villagers say police and forestry officials turn a blind eye to illegal logging by companies with powerful businessmen behind them.

“The authorities are the ones who want to destroy the people,” said Treup Theurm, who helps organize an indigenous land committee here. “We no longer regard them as authorities.”

On a recent trip to logging areas, reporters, including from VOA Khmer, were blocked by armed police. A local commune chief then forced the group to leave that night. The following morning, in a second attempt to reach the area, armed police again barred the way.

Keo Savuth, one of the policemen, later told VOA Khmer he was only following orders. But he declined to say whether police here accept bribes in return for protecting loggers.

Unable to avoid journalists seeking comment, Pcheub Pe, the commune chief of Sre Preah, said he would not allow journalists into the area without permission from his superiors. He asked for the names of people claiming he was corrupt. “If they have any evidence, I’ll take responsibility for that,” he said.

But rights workers and villagers here say whenever they report to authorities, including giving them information on informal patrols in the forest, they are thwarted: illegal loggers have left the area.

Em Sopheak, a local representative for the Community Legal Education Center, said authorities have no interest in helping. If they did, he said, “they would not have blocked the non-governmental organizations and media wishing to report the truth from the field.”

Pou Kong villagers have brought their grievances to the provincial capital, staging demonstrations here against illegal logging.

Yim Lux, vice governor of the province, said some companies have the right to log. “They are authorized by the government, so they are not wrong,” he said. “But when you people go and log without authorization, that’s illegal.”

He said he had no knowledge of reporters being barred entry to some areas of the province.

Saro Ratana, deputy chief of the provincial office for the Ministry of Agriculture’s forestry administration, denied he or his officials take bribes from companies.

“If any of my officials are involved and you have evidence, please report to me, and I’ll take administrative measures against them,” he said.