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Livelihoods felled by logging

2 fell illegal log
Craftsman Phorn Tha, 28, says forestry administration officials have told families from Sesan district’s Srekor I village that they are no longer allowed to cut down trees to make furniture. Photograph: Vireak Mai/Phnom Penh Post

Stung Treng province
The road to Srekor I village in Stung Treng province’s Sesan district is a bumpy one. The small discomfort caused by being jolted about on a motorcycle or being thrown around in a car, however, is offset by the striking scenery that surrounds a traveller on this road.

Small fires burn in areas of once-rich forest that have been decimated. Smoke drifts into the air and the charred skeletons of trees – felled or upright – lend a post-apocalyptic feel to the landscape.

Land clearing in multiple forms is creeping up on villagers in Srekor I village, who will soon be displaced when the Lower Sesan 2 dam’s reservoir swallows up the land their houses sit on.

The villagers are yet to be told when they will be relocated, but already the Post has seen tree cutters – working for an “Oknha Khna” – clearing forest a short distance away, seemingly in preparation for the $781 million dam.

Although Srekor commune chief Seak Mekong claims to have been threatened for speaking out about such land clearing, it’s the villagers who have been told they are no longer allowed to cut down trees.

Furniture maker Phorn Tha, 28, told the Post last week that forestry administration officials had warned him about felling trees – a practice his family and others have built their lives around.

“We don’t know how else to make money,” he said. “My father did this, and I have grown up doing this too.”

According to Tha, forestry officials said surrounding forests now belong to Royal Group, a Cambodian company that will build the 400-megawatt dam with Chinese company Hydrolangcang International Energy.

“We’re running a family business here,” Tha said. “We don’t have any employees, and we’re only making this furniture – doors, window frames and beds – to sell to people in our own community.”

That’s a point forestry officials contest. Chap Piseth, deputy chief of the forestry administration office that governs Srekor commune, said villagers were clearing large amounts of land.

“When they are cutting trees for their own family’s use, we turn a blind eye – people need to make their homes, doors and beds,” he said. “But we’ve been given information that villagers have set up processing plants and are selling the timber to visitors from other provinces.”

Walking through Srekor I village, it seems unlikely. It’s only in forest further afield that factories with piles of timber operate, and most of those carry signs of bigger companies.

Phou Mavann, another furniture maker in Srekor I village, said it was strictly small-scale production in his community.

“The company has cut all the big trees for their business. We’re only doing it to support our families; yet they’re stopping us,” he said. “We don’t know when we’re going to be relocated . . . so how can we make money in the meantime if we don’t do this?”

Villagers also believe nothing is being done to stop valuable timber from being pilfered, but there are signs that the authorities are taking some steps to address illegal activity.

Siv Sameth, of the military police’s crime office in Stung Treng town, said five boys and men were arrested on Sunday night of smuggling a cubic metre of timber, including rosewood.

“They were arrested when transporting the [timber] on a boat from a Sekong river dock,” he said. “They admitted they had done it four times.”

The suspects, all locals aged between 15 and 22, have been sent to court, he added.

Seak Mekong, the Sam Rainsy Party Srekor commune chief who has claimed authorities are trying to silence him, thinks villagers who survive by cutting and selling small amounts of timber should be left alone.

“Right now, the villagers have no other business. They rely on cutting these trees to use the timber as furniture. They have no other income to support their families,” he said.

“Forestry administration officials have warned them that if they do not stop, they will confiscate their tools and machinery.”

Piseth, from the forestry administration, said his officials were already doing just that.

“We did not threaten the families, we asked them to stop,” he said. “We have made this announcement several times and cracked down on their activities twice. We’ve confiscated four chainsaws.”

Kith Meng, chairman of Royal Group, could not be reached.

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