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