The Bunong ethnic community in Mondulkiri province’s Me Pai village, Pou Chrei commune, in Pech Chreada district alleged that an estimated 100ha of protected forest at the foot of the Phnom Preah mountain had been illegally logged with help from local authorities.
Sreunh Sinuon, a resident of the village, said a group of 30 indigenous people were prompted to investigate the site after they were alerted by nearby villagers that local authorities and land brokers had allegedly conspired to log the site over four months.
He said when the group arrived, they found that small and large trees on some 100ha out of 120ha had been cleared.
“We don’t know what they want to use the land for. They just logged trees, but have not bulldozed the land yet,” he said, adding that local communities relied heavily on the forest for their livelihoods and traditional lifestyle.
However, village chief Toy Cheunh, who was among the 30 to act on the tip, refuted claims that authorities had colluded to clear the site. He said some villagers had cleared a small portion of the forest at the foot of the mountain for farming.
“Don’t believe [the claims] because the area has been protected for a long time. The foot of the mountain is behind villagers’ homes, so they just fell some trees for farming. There is no land grab on the mountain because we protect it,” he said.
Pou Chrei commune chief Keunh Ratha shared Cheunh’s views that local villagers had cleared some portions to expand their land for farming. He said he had heard rumours that an oknha had sought permission to build an eco-tourism site on the mountain.
“Residents of Me Pai village cut trees for farming, not to sell . . . I heard that there is an oknha who wants [to build an eco-tourism site], but the ones who felled the trees are not oknha. They are ordinary villagers.
Pech Chreada district governor Meul Soeun said he was not aware of any oknha attempting to build an eco-tourism site on the mountain.
Mondulkiri Department of Environment director Keo Sopheak also said he was unaware of forest clearing on Phnom Preah mountain. He said officials would certainly crack down on the case and send it to court for further action if it had indeed occurred.
“When we are unable to catch loggers red-handed, we note them as unidentified suspects and file a case with the court for further action,” he said.