Kampong Thom Provincial Governor Uth Sam Orn yesterday pledged to dismiss officials underperforming in the fight against illegal logging and to establish a mobile team to pick up the slack, saying that four officers have already been removed from their posts.
The decision was taken at a meeting on Monday between the governor, provincial Forestry Administration, environment department, police officials and community representatives, Sam Orn said yesterday.
“We concluded that illegal logging in Prey Lang remains an issue. It’s small scale, but we still need to do something about it . . . I said that since there is illegal logging and smuggling taking place, we need to hold those working in the field accountable,” Sam Orn said, adding that it was important to ascertain whether officers’ poor results were down to inefficiency or graft.
The first to come under scrutiny were four economic police officers, who the governor ordered be pulled from their monitoring roles in Sandan district and given office duties.
“So far, they have achieved nothing in terms of arresting illegal smugglers,” Sam Orn said, adding that they would be replaced by a yet-to-be-formed mobile taskforce comprising of national and military police officers. “We’re suspicious that there could be coordination or facilitation taking place and that’s why illegal logging and smuggling remains.”
Provincial police chief Chou Sam An confirmed yesterday that the four officers had been relieved of their field duties. “Those officials were not engaged in illegal logging, but they weren’t making arrests either,” he clarified.
Conservationist Marcus Hardtke yesterday, however, said that law enforcement officers often played a crucial role in the illegal logging trade.
“In general, you can expect that whenever you have a significant amount of timber smuggling going on, there is someone in uniform involved, because other people don’t have the power to pull it off,” Hardtke said.
Meanwhile, provincial environment department director Cop Kakada claimed that while logging and smuggling persisted, they had gone down significantly since the Environment Ministry took responsibility for Prey Lang protected forest in March.
“We see that illegal logging has decreased by 80 per cent and nighttime smuggling and logging has decreased, too. But there are still challenges,” Kakada said, before going on to blame logging and smuggling’s persistence on lax enforcement by Forestry Administration officials in the surrounding areas.
However, provincial forestry department director Khem Chantha said that since jurisdiction of Prey Lang had shifted to the Environment Ministry, the problem was out of their control.
Seng Sokheng, director of NGO Peace-Building Network, also disputed Kakada’s claim that forestry crimes in Prey Lang had declined, or that they were more prevalent on the protected area’s periphery than inside.
“[It’s bigger] in Prey Lang than outside,” Sokheng said, going on to dispute the assertion that officials were playing no role in the illegal trade. “There are many powerful people behind the illegal loggers, such as provincial and district officials.”