SNOUL, Kratie - They have come from Kompong Cham, Prey Veng, Kompong Thom and other
provinces, drawn by the smell of freshly-cut wood and the money that can be made
Snoul is the Pailin of the east - its gems are trees. The district has become the
latest destination for adventurous Cambodians in the belief that their fortunes will
be made in the forests around Snoul.
A year ago, 32 year-old Py, came to Phum Khsam, 10 kilometers north of Snoul, from
Prey Veng. She and her husband built a small wooden house outside the main village.
Most of their neighbors have beaten the same path, coming from Kompong Cham or Kompong
"My husband goes into the forest to collect sap out of the trees and we sell
it," said Py.
For each can of sap, they receive 24,000 riels - earning far more than they did as
simple farmers in the rice paddies of Prey Veng.
All over Snoul district new houses have been built in the past year and a half. Businessmen
take the road down from Chhlong to the remote district of Snoul, staying in the town's
sole guest house.
Since the Samling road was cut through the forest, the inhabitants have been able
to move around much more. A new taxi service has been established between Chhlong
and Snoul. It takes only two hours and few checkpoints to travel the 90 km from Snoul
to Chhlong, on the banks of the Mekong.
The main square of Snoul, next to the impressively well-stocked market, seems like
the official parking lot for logging trucks unused since the beginning of the monsoon.
All through the town and the district felled logs lie waiting in backyards or along
the road to be moved out. They may stay here and rot on the site. This is one of
the first results of the visit by the Committee Against Illegal Logging led by the
Minister of Agriculture, Tao Seng Hour, to Snoul the day before.
Five kilometers before the Vietnamese border, on Route 13, a completely new village
has been built beside the Reththy Meco factory, a sawmill which is a subsidiary of
Mong Reththy's company.
Pro is one of those who came to try his luck in the tree business. He was a taxi
driver in Kratie, ferrying goods and passengers throughout the province.
"It was difficult to earn money because of the security problems. I was arrested
several times by soldiers and by Khmer Rouge so I decided to work for the factory."
Pro earns about $200 a month as a senior officer in the factory. It is a lot of money
for the former driver which he hopes to save for his return to Kratie town.
A little further down Route 13, on the other side of the road, Chey Samnang is angry
and jobless for the day. Under instructions from Tao Seng Huor's committee, soldiers
have just come to close down a small illegal sawmill he was working for in Phum Anchanh.
But the inhabitants have grown accustomed to these sudden moves of overzealous soldiers
which do not usually remain effective for long.
"It has happened three times already and a few weeks after the Committee comes
the logging starts again," said one of the workers sitting in the same noodle
shop next to the sawmill.
Samnang is 24 years old. He comes from Kompong Cham and after he failed the exam
to enter university he followed a friend of his to look for a job in Snoul. It was
not too difficult and he started working with the sawmill four months ago.
"I am paid by the cubic meter. For each cubic meter I cut, I receive 15,000
riels and food." Samnang said that before the Khmer New Year he had made a lot
of money, but now that the rain had started the work in the forest had finished and
so the sawmill was receiving less logs.
At the same time, the sawmill had just been closed by the visiting soldiers, and
Samnang did not know how long it would remain so. He said he wanted to find another
job, but didn't know of any options.
He does not know when he will return home. "Maybe soon if the sawmill is not
In the face of these newcomers reaping their rewards from the forest resources, the
local people of Snoul district seem discouraged. "Now we are afraid of going
in the forest because there are too many guns there," complained one resident
of the district.
In Phum Mil, a village in the middle of the wildlife sanctuary, the old people remember
the time when there were elephants, tigers and other animals living in the forest.
"They left and went up to Mondulkiri," said one of the old women living
in the village.
In Phum Mil, everyone works in the rice fields. For villagers, the forest has always
been used as a resource for building homes and boats.
Since the mid-eighties, the variety of tree species around the village has steadily
diminished, say the residents.
"They [the loggers] choose a place where there are good species to cut like
Boeng, Koki or Chetil and they cut down all of the species in the area. Afterwards,
the seeds of that species disappear because the forest is burned," said Sokha,
bearing an expression of hopelessness.
"The forest no longer produces any good trees," he lamented.
During a walk in the forest, the villagers point out the place where logging is underway.
They gesture towards the recently cut trees with an air of disapproval. The three
men explain angrily that the cutting still continues within the national park.
"I understand the government policy about old logs, but why should new logs
still be cut," said one of the villagers pointing at a freshly cut tree, felled
less than two months ago.
Back in the village, all the villagers sit together in council, talking about the
fate of the forest.
"All the logging operations should be banned. [If it continues], there will
be no forest left and it will take a long time to restore the forest for future generations,"
one of the village leaders, Ta, said forcefully.
The newcomers appear unconcerned about the future of the forest they are plundering.
A few kilometers away from the village of Phum Mil, Pro, from Reththy Meco factory
is blunt. "I will stay here as long as there is forest around," he said.