A Siem Reap Provincial Forestry Administration team has shut down 144 illegal charcoal kilns – with 76 owners being made to sign contracts agreeing to cease manufacture. The operations were conducted on April 8 and 9 in Preah Theat, Kraing, Pothring and Chong Spean villages of Chi Kraeng district’s Khvav commune.

Forestry Administration director Mong Bunlim said on April 10 that the operation was aimed at those charcoal kilns that were using non-timber forest products (NTFP) without permission.

He added that the administration did not take action against the owners of the kilns. They did not issue fines, but advised them to dismantle the kilns on their own. However, he confirmed that if after 30 days, those who signed contracts to dismantle them still refused to do so, forces from the administration would demolish them.

He went on to say that the administration had mounted the campaign because the kilns were illegal. They were not traditional Khmer kilns, and posed a threat to the sustainability of NFTPs.

“If they made one or two kilns in the backyard of their houses, and produced ten or twenty bags, that would be fine because they have been doing this for a long time. Article 40 of the Law on Forestry says that the local people have traditionally relied on the forest in their day to day lives. We went after those who went beyond what tradition allows, as they are breaking the law,” he said.

Adhoc’s Siem Reap human rights coordinator Chan Chamroeun said on April 10 that the operation made perfect sense, as long as it was carried out transparently and in good faith, and did not target the poor.

“If the crackdown on coal is because people built larger kilns than what the administration permits, and if it was applied equally to rich and poor, then we support it. If it was punishing the poor, and they were not destroying the forest, then this latest crackdown could affect their livelihoods,” he said.

He added that most of the brick, coal and tile kilns – or tobacco drying kilns – were built at least 5km from permanent forest reserves. The area was environmentally managed to prevent deforestation.

“If the kilns are small, they should not need permits for them. We should target larger operations. If they are on a small scale, they are merely creating income to support poorer family members. We shouldn’t close 100 per cent of the kilns, because there is a demand for charcoal in the country,” Chamroeu said.

Bunlim said that the operation was not yet complete, but it was time to celebrate Khmer New Year. The operation was temporarily suspended, and would resume after the celebrations.