Official in Preah Vihear province were forced to stand down during a timber raid near a community forest on Tuesday, after being confronted by dozens of villagers who say authorities are unfairly targeting locals while turning a blind eye to large-scale commercial logging.
About 60 villagers surrounded six provincial forestry officials at a village in Tbreng Meanchey district’s Pou commune after they arrived unannounced and found four large pieces of timber at the home of a villager named Chork Chea, according to Pich Porn, chief of the provincial community network.
“He kept the timber for just normal use, but the officials checked it and accused him of keeping it illegally,” Porn said, adding that it was a lower-grade timber than the high-value luxury wood commonly illegally logged in the area.
The timber was taken from Prey Preah Rokar, a protected forest that the community – Chea included – patrol regularly in order to prevent illegal logging.
Porn said small-scale logging for personal use, such as for building materials, is common among community members and generally allowed as long as it was not for commercial gain.
But the Forestry Administration (FA) had acted without permission from the provincial prosecutor in this case and were continually ignoring the rampant logging on a larger scale inside the forest, Porn said.
Chea could not be reached for comment yesterday. But Ith Phomara, director of the provincial FA, claimed that officers had, in fact, received permission from the provincial prosecutor.
“The offender just gathered the villagers to halt the authority from obtaining the evidence. If we tried to seize it, we would have faced danger,” the forestry director said.
“Finally, we stepped back.”
Phomara labelled the protected forest area a “danger zone” for FA officials, citing an unsolved case in which two law enforcement officers were gunned down in a late-night raid of an illegal logging site near the forest in November.
Ly Lon, Preah Vihear provincial prosecutor, said yesterday that he was unaware of Tuesday’s raid in Pou commune.
“I did not assign any prosecutors to the case,” he said.
Poek Sophon, advocacy chief for local NGO Ponlok Khmer in Preah Vihear, said the Forestry Administration should focus on the large-scale illegal loggers.
“They just blame the villagers who use logged wood for their daily life,” he said.