In Cambodia’s forests, families face a stark choice: sell their resin trees for a paltry amount to local officials or have them stolen by loggers
Kampong Thom province
In Prey Lang, the discordant sound of chainsaws echoes through the forest. Inevitably, the high-pitched whine is followed by a crash as a once-towering trunk falls to the forest floor, robbing the remaining wildlife of habitat, and the local community of their way of life.
More than 60,000 families, largely from ethnic minority groups such as the Kuy, survive off the nontimber forest products from Prey Lang, with many dependent on resin extracted from the trees.
But reports over the past year indicate illegal logging across Prey Lang, which spreads across five provinces in northern Cambodia and is the largest lowland evergreen forest in Southeast Asia, is increasing. By some estimates, about two-thirds of the resin trees are gone, and those who depend on them worry the last may be on the verge of extinction.
Nuon Hat, a 29-year-old resin collector, has a daunting task: protecting more than 5,000 resin-producing trees from loggers.
“I don’t know how long I can protect them, because the loggers are police and soldiers in the district, and they are always trying to negotiate to buy them from me,” he said. “But I will not sell. If I sell them, how can I feed my family in the future?”
Resin tapping once provided many Cambodians with a largely sustainable source of income. But their earnings have been decimated by industrial-scale logging across the country.
The practice goes back to pre-Angkorian times, with trees divided between communities using a traditional ownership system. Carving small holes in the trunks, the resin collectors light tiny fires inside to encourage the sticky sap to trickle out. The resin is then used as a raw material in the caulking of boats, as well as the manufacturing of varnish, soap, leather and as a fuel for lighting torches.
“They [officials] are always trying to buy our … resin trees, which are more than a metre in width, for only $7.50 or $10,” Hat said. “But if I sell the resin, I can get so much more than that.”
He said he earned up to $625 per month from extracting about 680 kilograms of resin. It’s a far higher figure than average due to the number of trees he is tapping.
A 2009 study by the Cambodia Development Resource Institute found that resin production had declined slightly since a previous study in 2003, largely because of illegal logging and restrictions placed on resin tappers by companies holding government-granted economic land concessions. The 2003 study found that at least 100,000 Cambodians relied on resin tapping, with 20,000 tonnes exported annually, mostly to supply Vietnam’s fishing boats.
The total annual trade, including exports to Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, which make up the majority of resin tapped in Cambodia, amounts to between $4.7 million and $7.6 million, the CDRI found.
Another resin collector and Prey Lang resident, Chheang Vuthy, also oversees about 5,000 trees. Since 1990, many of his trees have been logged in secret, Vuthy said. This is despite the Law on Forestry’s outright ban on the logging of resin-producing trees unless specific terms are negotiated with local communities. Many more had been sold by friends and family threatened by local officials.
“The reality is that they really do not want to sell, but they feel they have no choice. After they sell them, they have nothing to do, so they get jobs as loggers. In the future, if the forest is destroyed, they will be left with nothing,” Vuthy said.
Vuthy said his family lives in fear, and the encroachment of loggers, often armed, and the threats that follow, have led to despair.
“Today, there are more than 500 chainsaws in Prey Lang, and the lumberjacks include the local authorities,” he said.
Many who once considered themselves guardians of the forest have switched sides, tempted by the lucrative illegal logging business, he continued.
“People who used to protect the forest have become loggers and are selling the timber to businessmen from other provinces. Today, I estimate that less than 30 per cent of the resin trees remain,” he said.
If the logging business in Prey Lang continues at this pace and no concerted action is taken by the authorities, Vuthy estimates that by the end of next year, nearly all of the resin trees will be gone.
“Officials like Sandan district police chief Oung Moly have cleared hundreds of hectares of land for his farms in Mean Roth commune,” Vuthy alleges. “He does not care about deforestation.”
Numerous attempts to contact Moly for this story were unsuccessful.
One villager, who asked not to be named, could not hold back the tears as he spoke of how he sold his 2,000 resin trees for fear of not being able to feed his family. “My family thought that if we did not sell them, they [loggers] would come to cut them in secret anyway, whereas if we sold them, we could get some money now, even though we know that we will face difficulties in the future,” he said.
Local activists like Hoeun Sopheap, a Prey Lang community representative, have worked tirelessly against the influx of illegal loggers but, for some, the signs of fatigue are beginning to show.
Sopheap said he had repeatedly sent complaints to the Ministry of Interior, Council of Ministers, Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Agriculture and Kampong Thom Provincial Hall, including lists of officials involved in the logging trade and the evidence against them.
He has yet to get a response from the authorities. He said it was now more difficult that ever before to stop loggers, as they and officials have become more organised, often receiving tip-offs about the activists’ forest patrols in advance.
“They conspire systematically,” he said. “They say they are logging timber to build houses, but the timber is not for construction. It’s for sale, because they only log trees that are suitable for export.”
Countless construction permits have been issued by the local authorities in recent months, villagers say. But Prey Lang residents firmly believe the permits are just a pretext to log, providing a veneer of legality to an otherwise illegal business.
“The letters are always issued each month. When we stop loggers, they always produce these letters. But in fact, I think the letters are just a means for them to make it look like legal logging,” he said.
Un Both, Sandan district governor, rebutted the villagers’ claims, saying that his officers actively seek to combat the illegal timber trade, and never issue logging permits for construction. “In fact, according to the law, we as the district government have no right to allow people to cut down trees for house construction. Only the Forestry Administration can do that,” he said.
But, he added, the local authority allows the loggers to log “because we see they are very poor”.
“It is not corruption to allow people to log,” he said.
Chamroeun*, a logger from Preah Vihear province found standing by a 20-metre tree, scythe by his side, and visibly nervous in the presence of forest patrollers, said he and his brother frequently travelled to Prey Lang in the employ of a timber trader.
He said he was paid about $37 per cubic metre of timber sent to his boss, a middleman who resells the valuable wood.
“Before we see local people, our boss tells us to run away as fast as we can, leaving our things, like chainsaws, in the forest,” Chamroeun said. “The boss says he will settle the matter later with the authorities.”
Chamroeun said he had little to fear from the authorities, forest rangers or police, because they rarely ventured into the forest, and the mention of his employer’s name would probably be enough to get him off the hook anyway.
They were good friends, he said.
“District police chief Uong Moly told us to run away when we see the community coming to inspect the forest,” he said. “If they bring us to his police station, he can help us.”
“I feel bad for cutting down the huge trees, but I am dirt poor and have to do it to make money. I know it is illegal, but we cannot win by filing complaints, and my wife and kids are more important than the trees.”
Another logger, Sovann*, begged the activists to let him go without turning him over to the authorities. “You can take the chainsaw, but please do not detain me. I am very poor and I’ll go back home within days,” he said.
Efforts to have Prey Lang registered as a protected area that started four years ago have stalled, conservationists say.
For villagers like Nuon Hat, the constant struggle against the loggers paints an uncertain picture of the future.
“I don’t know if my son will know about resin trees in the future or not, because the end is drawing close under my watch already.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities