For three days last week, the Preah Roka forest in Preah Vihear province was silent, the usual cacophony of chainsaws notably absent.
The buzz of trucks arriving empty and later leaving heavily loaded with timber had been replaced by ethnic Kuoy villagers, about 300 in all, patrolling for illegal loggers.
“Destroying the forest is destroying our lives,” said Nuon Mun, who was among the band of villagers from three districts. “They are logging all the [trees].”
Previously, villagers say, teams of loggers targeted luxury timber in what is the province’s second-biggest forest after Prey Lang. In the past month, their priorities have changed and they have set their sights on resin trees. Although the area is state forest, the minority group relies on such trees for their livelihoods and fear the consequences of the logging will be profound.
It’s a concern the authorities care little for, villagers say.
“The authorities help, all right, but they don’t help us,” Mun said. “They help the anarchists behind this. When we come here to patrol, they report it to the [loggers].”
The long road into the forest from the closest town takes eight hours on a homemade tractor – and it’s only a 45-kilometre trip. Sections of the road, damaged by heavy trucks or covered by broken, decaying pieces of timber, are very nearly impassable.
During the past few weeks, villagers say, workers with unfamiliar faces have logged about 90 resin trees.
In what was once thick, dense forest, sun is beginning to shine through, villager Roeung Khan said at a ceremony that the patrol groups held as a way of urging spirits to protect their trees.
Monks tied saffron robes around resin trees and incense sticks were burned as those present prayed for growth rather than destruction.
“We have to protect Preah Roka forest, because now it is the only one left,” said villager Touch Sokha, 57. “If we can’t protect it, the next generation will not even know what the forest is, while the old people will be starving to death.”
Many Kuoy men are rice farmers and a lot of the women weave silk, according to Ponlok Khmer, an organisation that works closely with the community. Many of the families also depend on resin for their survival – as did their ancestors.
Holding about seven baskets of resin in her homemade tractor, surrounded by her family, villager Kham Von, 56, said that her family can collect about 30 litres a month, which can earn them more than $20.
“But with this destruction, we’re losing the trees,” she said.
Ponlok Khmer says that about 15,000 people from 21 villages depend on this forest. And it’s not the first time it has been under threat. In 1997, a forestry concession was granted to a company called Chenda Plywood. After protests against resin trees being felled, the company suspended its activities in 2002.
This time around, villagers and rights groups believe they know who is behind the logging: Try Pheap.
A logging tycoon, Pheap is licensed to clear vast areas of Cambodia’s forests, possesses a large number of economic land concessions and has been accused of causing the eviction of more than 1,400 families.
“We know that Try Pheap’s company has deployed people to cut down and sell trees in the area,” said Boek Sophan, from Ponlok Khmer.
Staff from the organisation, Sophan claimed, had spoken to loggers in the area who said they worked for Pheap.
Ouch Leng, president of the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force, said his organisation was preparing a report that would expose Pheap’s connection to the logging.
Pheap and representatives of his company, MDS Import Export, could not be reached, nor could It Phumara, director of the provincial forestry administration.
With the patrol over, the villagers are expecting the silence to lose out to the sound of trucks and chainsaws again.
“Previously, this area was reached by no one but those who collected resin,” Sophan said.