A group of six environmentalists, including the Goldman Prize-winning Ouch Leng, were banned yesterday from accessing the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary in Preah Vihear province, where they had hoped to investigate illegal logging and hang banners bearing anti-logging messages.
At the same time, Leng said yesterday, rangers did nothing to stop dozens of mini-tractors from entering the area to allegedly haul illegal timber, an act he characterised as “hiding forestry crimes”, though authorities yesterday denied the allegations.
Leng said his group had placed stickers and banners at the entrance to Prey Lang in Chey Sen district and were moving forward into Prey Lang when environmental rangers, accompanied by sanctuary Deputy Director Chin Monorith, stopped them.
After the group was questioned, Monorith would not allow them to take “even a step” inside the sanctuary, saying they did not have a permission letter from local authorities. In addition, Leng said, rangers said they were afraid that the group would conduct political activities.
“Tractors went in and out, but there was no problem [for them]. We saw many crimes,” Leng said. “They do not want us to place the stickers and enter because they want to protect the crimes. It is the restriction of environmental work.”
Leng said his team had placed hundreds of anti-logging stickers and banners in forests around the country, and had encountered no resistance in the past.
After yesterday’s incident, the activists issued a statement accusing the rangers of taking bribes from loggers and timber traders to turn a blind eye to the trade.
However, Monorith, the sanctuary deputy director, denied the allegation, accusing Leng of failing to specify the purpose of his team’s visit and lacking permission from local authorities.
“We asked them to work together [with us]. Our team is waiting to welcome them around the clock if they actually have a willingness to preserve the natural resources,” Monorith said.
He added that there was no forestry crime in the area, and said the tractors Leng accused of transporting timber had actually entered the area to transport rice during the harvest season.
Restrictions on activist patrols in Prey Lang were raised at an environmental protection forum last week, with Prey Lang Community Network activists complaining to Environment Minister Say Sam Al about requirements to inform authorities ahead of patrol.
Sam Al, for his part, suggested community members work with local rangers for safety reasons.