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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Hero's assault on the spirit forests of Ratanakkiri

Hero's assault on the spirit forests of Ratanakkiri


AT FIRST glance the ethnic Kreung hilltribe village of Phum Svay in Ratanakkiri

has achieved a successful balance of the demands of traditional culture and the

encroachment of modernity.

Rosmas Chves, headman of the village of Lum, with his two nephews and niece,

whose mother, father and brother were slain

Villagers have long shed their customary

hill-tribe garb for T-shirts and trousers as they carry out the subsistence

slash-and-burn agriculture that has sustained the village for millenia.

And while the traditional Kreung longhouse in the center of this

community of 90 people is of the same design and materials as that employed by

village forefathers, the structure is crowned with painstakingly-carved

renditions of a helicopter and a jet plane.

Beneath these surface

impressions of harmony between new and old, however, Phum Svay is a war zone in

a battle that pits the Kreung's spiritual and economic traditions against the

diesel powered, military-backed muscle of the Hero Taiwan logging concession.

Since January 1999, Hero Taiwan has been hard at work ripping the heart

out of the cultural and spiritual life of the Kreung by conducting logging

operations in areas the Kreung designate as"spirit forests".

"The Spirit

Forests are where the people go to live after they die," said Phum Svay Village

Chief Yong Chanam about the spiritual importance of four neighboring "blocks" of

spirit forest abutting his village. "When a couple is expecting a baby, they

have a dream of the Spirit Forest, and the forest gods send them a

child."

Phum Svay village chief Yong Chanam, left, and deputy chief Tang Kriel, right

Unfortunately for the Kreung, the same factors that enhance the

spiritual value of the Spirit Forests add to their commercial value, important

to Hero Taiwan.

"Spirit Forests are located on the tops of the hills

covered by big, old trees," Chanam explained.

The logging of the Kreung's

spirit forests has had a profound effect on the lives of the people of Phum

Svay.

"The forest gods are very angry ... We can hear the sound of

screaming and the beating of drums from the forests that show their anger,"

Chanam said. "Four people in our village have died since the logging started

because the forest gods are angry."

A more tangible threat posed by

Hero's logging of the spirit forests is its impact on the Kreung's carefully

balanced relationship with the surrounding ecosystem.

Hero's map at the intersection at O'Chum, showing its concession extending northwest to Virachey (Vun Say) and northeast to Ta Veng, both on the Tonle Se San

"We rely on the

spirit forests to provide medicine, rattan, plant leaf for roofing, and vines

for ropes," Chanam said. "The spirit forests also have wildlife you can't see

anywhere else, like tiger and tonsaung (a form of wild forest cow)."

The

fact that the logging of the spirit forest is a violation of the FORTEC

concession management plan formulated with World Bank support and agreed to by

the Cambodian government provides cold comfort to Chanam and his fellow

villagers.

FORTEC decrees that logging concession areas must be planned

in accordance with consultations with local inhabitants, in particular

indigenous hill tribes. According to Chanam, no such consultation occurred

before Hero Taiwan went to work on the spirit forests.

Not surprising,

says Patrick Alley, Director of the environmental watchdog Global Witness.

"I personally witnessed RCAF logging for Hero outside their concesion

area in January 1999, before they were allowed to cut anywhere," Alley explained

by email. "The fact that we have also documented their illegal activities

before, as have others, and they still get preferential treatment, strongly

suggests to me that they have some powerful friends."

Efforts by the Post

to meet with Hero Taiwan management at their huge sawmill facility in Banlung

provided a first-hand first-hand glimpse of some of the "powerful friends" to

whom Alley refers.

A no-nonsense RCAF soldier who manned the sawmill gate

told the Post that company policy required potential visitors receive permission

of the Ratanakkiri Provincial Government before meeting with Hero

officials.

Upon taking some pictures of the massive timber warehouse

within the Hero sawmill facility, the Post was warned by a Hero employee that

Hero's RCAF security force was preparing to seize thePost's camera and advised

the Post to leave the area immediately.

Such strong-arm tactics strike a

familiar chord with the residents of Phum Svay.

The villagers of Tien kick to death a man thought to be Thy, supposed leader of the so-called bandits, whom police brought back to show the whereabouts of victims, then yielded to the mob. The photo was supplied to AFP by the governor of Ratanakkiri.

In June Phum Svay

residents seized some Hero Taiwan logging equipment to press home their demands

that logging operations in the spirit forests cease.

The equipment was

subsequently released to Hero Taiwan logging crews after a token payment of

"compensation" and an assurance that logging of the spirit forests would

end.

Instead, two days later Chanam was called to a meeting with the

district governor who, flanked by heavily armed soldiers, insisted that the

village chief thumbprint a contract forgoing any claims to the lands upon which

the spirit forests stood.

"He said, 'You're not the head man here, Hun

Sen is the head man'," Chanam recalled. "He said if we tried to protect the

land, [Hero Taiwan] would cut the forests anyway."

"That is just an

accusation," said Chhay Veth, Director of the Ratanakkiri Department of

Forestry, of Chanam's encounter with the district governor. Veth describes

Chanam's explanation of events as "mistaken", and based on two occasions in

which he provided thumbprints for deals the village struck with Hero for the

construction of roads and a village school.

According to Veth, the

discovery of the existence of the spirit forests was "a surprise" for both Hero

and provincial authorities, and both are taking measures to harmonize the

Kreung's traditional belief system with the demands of concession

logging.

"In future we want to make sure that logging occurs outside of

spirit forest areas, but it's difficult because there are no laws or experts to

determine the [spirit forests'] boundaries," Veth said. "If the Kreung decide on

the boundary of the spirit forests the area will be too big."

Chanam

confirms that a recent seminar of concerned environmental and legal NGOs on the

spirit forest issue had led to a decision to allow five representatives of Hero

and Phum Svay to delineate the borders of the Kreung's spirit forests, but

remains skeptical whether Hero will comply with the result.

"We'll abide

by a fair decision, but we don't know if Hero will," Chanam said.

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