The Battambang provincial Department of Environment has dug up nearly 100 cubic metres of high-grade koki timber from the Stung Sangke riverbed in the Samlaut Multiple Use Area, said department director Kort Boran.

He said a working group dug for two months, from May 7 this year to July 6. A trader from Sangke district named Ream Phearum was commissioned to lead the project in the protected forest area in north-western Cambodia.

“Operators on this project found and collected nearly 100 cubic metres of timber. Most of the timber is koki that was felled during the civil war in the 1980s. But the logs are still of good quality and can be processed into furniture or houses Boran said.

He said the efforts to extract timber buried underground in the Stung Sangke riverbed were made to provide quality timber for public and State use.

Citing claims by villagers in the area, Boran said thousands of cubic metres of timber had been logged in the 1980s, pieces of which measured over one metre in diameter.

The department paid six million riel to Phearum to explore the Borkit and Borlang riverbeds, which are at the head of the Stung Sangke River in the area.

“If we didn’t dig out the timber for public use, it would be very regrettable,” Boran said.

The working group for the project is storing the timber temporarily behind Chan Monisiha Pagoda in Samlot commune’s Samlot village in Samlot district.

They will ask permission from the provincial Unified Command Committee to use machinery to transport the timber to the provincial Department of Environment.

They will also seek permission from the Ministry of Environment to organise and use the timber for public use according to legal procedure.

But residents in the village claim that Phearum is secretly conducting an illegal mining business in the area and using his title as head of the project as a cover.

Yat Neang, 54, who resides in the commune, told The Post on Tuesday that over the last 30 years, the Borkit and Borlang rivers were sites of mining operations.

But mining in the area was prohibited after the government decided to include the areas in the Samlaut Multiple Use Area, which is protected and conserved by rangers from the provincial Department of Environment and the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation, an NGO focused on nature conservation.

Neang said: “I see them using machinery to excavate soil near the edge of the river and to pump sand from the river onto a platform that was prepared in that area. They do the work day and night. They dig mining soil near the edge of the river and then put it into sacks to transport them at night.

“The timber which was dug out included kronhuong, phchoek and koki varieties. But the timber was not transported – they collected it for storage in one place.”

Samlot commune chief Thoem Proeung told The Post on Tuesday that in the past, people had pumped sand and pulled timber from the riverbeds. But after he reported the violations in writing to the Samlot district administration, the activity stopped.

“I don’t know what they do with the timber dug out from the riverbeds. But more importantly, the area is protected and conserved,” he said.

Phearum could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

However, Boran said that Phearum had lost millions of riel by assisting the department with the project and he denied any claims of illegal mining. “No illegal mining is taking place,” he said.