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Pursat NGO accused of conning carvers

ABOUT 30 families in Pursat province have filed a complaint against a self-styled conservation NGO that they say has been extorting money from wood carvers.

Ma Sokhim, who thumbprinted the complaint, which was filed with the governor of Kravanh district on Tuesday, said employees of the NGO had been going around and asking for up to 10,000 riels (US$2.40) from carvers fashioning miniature statues out of wood purchased from middlemen. If they refuse to pay, their wood is confiscated, he said.

“A group of about five NGO workers threatens the villagers if they see them carving wood,” he said. “Even villagers who only take a small amount of wood by bicycle, they have to pay the NGO 10,000 riels.”

Buon Keat, one of the wood carvers, said he decided to gather thumbprints and file the complaint after workers from the NGO, the Protection of Forest Business and Environment Natural Resource Organisation, demanded that he pay them $300.

“I begged them to let me give them $150, but they did not agree,” he said.

“They threatened to take all my wood statues from my home, so I decided to file a complaint with the district governor.”

Thong Sovankiri, the NGO’s director, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

But Yem Bunly, the chief of Prangil commune, where the extortion has allegedly occurred, said he believed the complaint had merit, and that he had forwarded it on to district Governor Toch Sambo.

“I have received the complaint about the NGO from the villagers, and I have sent this complaint on to the district governor already,” he said Wednesday.

Toch Sambo said he, too, had received complaints about the NGO, and that he had asked its director “many times” to explain its activities.

“The NGO’s work differs from the request it submitted to the Ministry of Interior when it was set up. They should conduct workshops on educating villagers about the impact of cutting down trees, and they should not be taking money from the villagers,” he said.

“I have invited the NGO many times to be educated on what they should do, but they still do it. If they do not stop these activities, I will ask the Ministry of Interior to withdraw their NGO licence.”

He added: “I don’t want to hear any more complaints from my villagers.”

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