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March for the Environment Halted by Police

Some 400 students, monks and activists were stopped from a peaceful march for Environmental Day on Thursday.
Some 400 students, monks and activists were stopped from a peaceful march for Environmental Day on Thursday, as they sought to deliver petitions to the Ministry of Environment and other institutions calling for an end to deforestation.

Cambodia’s forests provide many services to the rural poor, including minority groups, but those forests are being developed economically for rubber and other products.

Marchers had also planned to deliver their petitions to the Ministry of Agriculture, which houses the forestry administration, and the embassies of China and Vietnam, who are major developers in forested areas.

After a brief negotiation, several representatives were allowed to meet with city district officials, who promised to forward the petitions on.

Tim Malay, head of the Cambodian Youth Network, said the purpose of the march was to remind the government to “pay more attention” to deforestation caused by development companies and illegal logging operations.

Deforestation continues despite several decrees and other efforts aimed at curbing the practice. In a statement, 26 different organizations called on the government to strengthen enforcement against deforestation and reconsider plans for a number of hydropower dams.

Tim Malay said most deforestation currently taking place occurs during the development of the dams, though economic concessions also play a role. Most of those projects are undertaken by Chinese or Vietnamese firms, he said.

“Despite the development, those projects cause deforestation and damage to the environment and wild animals,” he said.

Thai Sovanny, a representative for people living near the Prey Lang forest, which spans several provinces in the northeast of the country, said forestry officials in his community in Preah Vihear province collude with illegal loggers.

“If they had showed a real passion to stop deforestation, the forests in my community would not have disappeared so early,” he said. “They are part of the illegal loggers.”

The government has had a ban on public assembly in place since massive labor and pro-opposition demonstrations in January. Minor clashes were reported Thursday, but no violence.

Am Sam Ath, senior monitor for the rights group Licadho, said authorities continue to prohibit peaceful marches, where instead they should be “happy and cooperative” to serve “good changes.”

Phnom Penh spokesman Long Dimanche said the gathering was not allowed to prevent social instability and traffic jams. “It will affect other people who are driving on the road,” he said.

Saom Sopheab, a spokesman for the Ministry of Environment, said the ministry had received the petition. But the ministry is already working “to tackle those problems,” he said.