They arrive in a cloud of exhaust, tyres slick with mud from yesterday’s rain. In front of an abandoned police checkpoint, deep in the jungle near the Vietnamese border, six men in their teens and 20s light cigarettes and take swigs of water as they look over their motorbikes.
Traffic on this hellish road picks up around 8 in the morning each day. Today they pass several other villagers with chainsaws and machetes, and two soldiers who do not seem to notice the tree stumps littering the road of this wildlife sanctuary.
Khoeun*, 26, a Phnong villager who lives in a wooden hut a few kilometres from the edge of the forest, overlooking banana and pepper plantations, checks his motorcycle with the precision of a captain examining his vessel: retying knots, distributing weight, securing his machete and bottle of gasoline.
“We cut small things,” Khoeun explains. “We have no farm, and it’s difficult. Most of the stuff has already been cleared, and we collect the leftovers.”
“I don’t want to do this,” he adds. “But if I don’t, someone else will.”
Driven by desperation, overturning generations of tradition, Khoeun and scores of other villagers in this area of Mondulkiri have turned away from traditional farming and towards the illegal timber trade.
Environmentalists say they have watched with growing concern as the province – still Cambodia’s least populated and most densely forested – has seen its wealth stripped, sucked and mined from the earth, with locals reaping few of the benefits.
“We are poorer now than when we farmed rice,” said Chrouth Thea, a 31-year-old father of three in Sen Monorom commune.
As at other houses in the village, Thea also has a motorcycle in his front yard modified specially to carry wood – stripped of all excess weight, including the seat, and outfitted with tire chains like a prop from the movie Mad Max.
Thea and his wife used to farm rice and vegetables on rotating plots of communal land, a hallmark of the traditional Phnong lifestyle. But the land once used by their community for farming has been eaten up by private companies, one of which now employs the couple as labourers.
Even as timber exports to Vietnam reached $40 million last year, Thea and his wife have seen little change. Most homes in their village still have no toilets, and they collect water from a nearby polluted stream.
“Before, we didn’t know how it worked – how to grab the land and sell the land. By the time we realised it, the land was gone,” Thea said. “The ones who used to own land no longer have land. The ones who didn’t now have it.”
Deforestation in Mondulkiri is intrinsically tied to the loss of indigenous land rights, according to logging activist Marcus Hardtke.
Today there are more than 20 companies with land concessions in Mondulkiri, despite the fact that most of the province is designated a protected area and the communal land rights of ethnic minorities are guaranteed by law.
“This legal requirement has been undermined and ignored at every level of government for 10 years,” Hardtke said. “Since then, the damage has been done.”
Since the mid-2000s, when many of the land concessions were awarded, communities have lost cohesion, villagers have been pressured to accept land titles and those resisting have been bullied by authorities.
Villagers say the most valuable kinds of trees, like rosewood, disappeared from Mondulkiri’s forests about four years ago. Now secondary species like neang nuon and koki, once plentiful, are on the brink of disappearing too.
Few conservationists blame locals like Khoeun and Thea. Instead, they say, the vast majority of logging is conducted by well-connected cartels exporting wood to Vietnam with the collusion of border police, environmental officials and military, who allegedly allow large groups of Vietnamese loggers across the border to cut wood in Cambodian territory.
It wasn’t far from a crossroads near the O’Huch border checkpoint – where three rangers were shot and killed in January in a confrontation with Cambodian authorities – that Vietnamese loggers were recently running a large timber operation.
In the weeks since the shooting, many involved in the trade have disappeared and police have abandoned several checkpoints along the road, allowing people like Khoeun to enter and scavenge for scraps.
The evidence is still there: long planks of beng, neang nuon, and koki, far larger than Khoeun could transport; rest areas littered with Vietnamese candy wrappers; tree trunks carved with Vietamese writing.
Sok Ratha, an Adhoc coordinator based in Mondulkiri, said corrupt officials allow the timber trade to Vietnam to continue with impunity, and the court system regularly punishes small-time offenders instead of going after the big companies doing most of the cutting.
“[Locals] work hard to protect the forest, but they have not been encouraged by authorities at the state or local level,” Ratha said. “Instead they have earned scorn and threats and accusations and arrest. This makes them lose the will to protect the forest.”
For many locals, the timber trade has also warped their sense of right and wrong.
Residents of Pou Tru village speak of Environment Ministry ranger Theun Soknay, one of three patrollers killed in January, as a Robin Hood-like figure with a complex moral code.
According to them, Soknay allowed villagers to collect small amounts of timber without arresting them or demanding money. But when he found large groups of loggers, especially Vietnamese, he seized chainsaws and motorbikes without mercy, and was known not to accept bribes.
His work earned him threats from the authorities, said his 32-year-old wife Touch Naran.
“Afterwards he would put his blanket over his head, he would not let me see his face,” she said, holding back tears. “Sometimes he would ask me whether I wanted to be honest or rich, whether I wanted a nice house or a car to drive. I told him we want honour.”
Still, Naran admits that her husband often accepted money from brokers who needed to get into the village to buy timber each week – money that he saw as necessary to keep his team running and supplied with food and gas.
An environment official’s salary of roughly $200 per month was not enough to support a family, Naran explained, as a motorbike piled with neang nuon logs roared past. It was the third one in an hour.
“See?” Naran said. “When my husband was here, they could not do like this, out in the open, in the daytime.”
Authorities at the local and national level have been loath to admit logging takes place in Mondulkiri’s protected areas.
Sou Sinheng, the Sen Monorom commune police chief, denied any logging occurred in the commune. Khvan Trel, the commune chief, said she had never heard of Vietnamese loggers crossing the border into Cambodian forests.
However, she said, police and military had banned villagers from going near O’Huch border checkpoint, a border post rumoured to be a major thoroughfare for timber exports to Vietnam.
“They do not want people to go in there alone in case there is a problem,” she said, without specifying what those problems might be. “They don’t want to be responsible for it.”
Sao Sopheap, the spokesman for the Ministry of Environment, said reports that Vietnamese loggers were being allowed to fell timber in Mondulkiri’s forests were untrue.
He claimed that stricter enforcement and an increased number of rangers over the past year meant that protected areas across the nation were safer than ever – despite the fact that Vietnamese imports data show exports of Cambodian logs jumped by 17 percent last year.
“There is a very good chance that we will overcome the challenges of illegal logging in the country,” Sopheap said. “Of course, we can’t claim it is completely over, but we are working hard. This shows the public that we are taking this seriously.”
Khoeun, however, said he has noticed more and more outsiders arriving in the province each day from places like Kratie and Stung Treng, chasing virgin jungle.
His greatest fear is that the government will give the forest by his house to a private company, as they have in nearby Bousraa and Memang communes. “In this province, everything is based on the forest,” Khoeun said. “We do not have other agriculture or industry. We do not have shoe factories or garment factories.”
If he’s lucky, he’ll earn about $25 for the wood he collects over the next three days in the jungle, making impossible progress through roads so rutted that he often has to manoeuvre his motorbike with his knees pulled up to his chest.
The money he makes helps pay for school for his siblings, including a younger sister in grade 11 who recently won an award for academic excellence and will travel to Siem Reap with a local NGO.
Still, it’s not enough. Three of his brothers have already dropped out to join him in the timber trade, and supply is dwindling. After a day in the forest looking for koki, Khoeun spots just two specimens.
Sitting on a table at the former police checkpoint, abandoned in such a hurry that plates and a lunchbox are still on the table, Khoeun describes a community clinging to the present, as if trapped on an island whose shores are shrinking by the day.
“I don’t know what will happen in the future,” he said. “Maybe, in 60 years, we will have factories, and the forest will be gone.”
*Name has been changed to protect the source’s identity.