The constant hum of chainsaws almost drowned out Buddhist monk Sam Kim Sath, 65, as he stood this week in a wildlife sanctuary on Oral Mountain, Cambodia’s highest peak.
Forest in the Phnom Oral Wildlife Sanctuary, in the eastern part of the Cardamoms, is being “obliterated” by systematic logging, Kim Sath said while men in homemade tractors drove piles of timber out of the sanctuary without hindrance.
Kim Sath has lived in this area since childhood, days when a vast array of creatures roamed what was much thicker forest.
The animals that remain, including a small number of elephants and tigers, are being driven further up the mountain by land clearing and are in danger of being lost altogether, Kim Sath said.
“Whenever I go here now, I see open space – the natural greenery is gone,” he said. “I almost shed tears at what has been lost in the past few years.”
A royal decree issued by the late King Norodom Sihanouk in the 1990s once protected the area, which stretches across parts of Kampong Speu province into Pursat.
In the past five years or so, vast chunks of the sanctuary have been carved up by companies, including some with obvious links to the government.
According to past editions of Cambodia’s Royal Book, the HLH Agriculture company, controlled by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s sister Hun Seng Ny, holds an economic land concession (ELC) in the area.
The Phnom Penh Sugar Company and the Kampong Speu Sugar Company, both owned by ruling party senator and tycoon Ly Yong Phat, also possess thousands of hectares of land.
Timber felled inside those ELCs, so the companies can cultivate corn and sugar, ends up with firms owned by logging tycoon Try Pheap, Kim Sath and others, villagers alleged.
The timber cut from trees outside the ELCs – and therefore felled illegally – is stored inside some of the companies’ concessions until buyers are ready for it, they added.
“[An independent broker called] Kea is the main buyer to sell on to Try Pheap’s syndicate,” Kim Sath said. “If there were no companies coming to buy timber, there would not have been such destruction and people in these areas would be able to live happily.”
Villagers also said government officials are not only turning a blind eye to illegal logging, but actively participating in it.
In areas where timber is stockpiled, villagers said, luxury vehicles with Royal Cambodian Armed Forces plates are often seen.
Villager Phong Kit, 55, said systematic logging had also spawned logging by individuals joining the rush. “People log when they see companies do it – don’t let it continue,” he said.
But forestry officials seem powerless – and unwilling – to stop it, Kit added. “Nowadays, I just see them come to collect money from people.”
Recent data from Open Development Cambodia shows that only about 46 per cent of the country is covered in forest, down from 72 per cent in 1973.
A separate report, released by the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force (CHRTF) last month, alleges that Try Pheap’s land empire has grown to almost 70,000 hectares in size. Furthermore, it claims, his companies clear luxury timber from ELCs in practically every province and his projects have resulted in the eviction of at least 1,445 families.
Pheap – accused of on-selling timber from the Oral Wildlife Sanctuary – could not be reached.
When a reporter spoke to Mun Sam Ath, 35, at his house in Kampong Speu province’s Oral district, he said he had just witnessed cattle-drawn carts, homemade tractors and trucks transporting huge amounts of timber from the area.
As president of a community group called the Forest Protection Association, Sam Ath wants to do more to stop it.
“We try to protect the forest, but opposing the loggers – powerful people – is damn difficult. They’re protected by soldiers and forestry officials.”
The sound of chainsaws is also familiar to Sam Ath’s ears. And it’s a din he said has increased since the slaying of his friend, environmentalist Chut Wutty, in a remote part of Koh Kong province last year.
“Since his death, it has become anarchy. No other organisations have dared tried to fight like he did.”
On the other side of the equation is Neang Doeun, 24, who logs luxury timber with a team of 15 people on Oral Mountain.
“I was working for a factory but could never make much money doing it,” he said.
Felling for timber is widespread in the sanctuary, he added, and loggers need only pay patrolling officials about $12 to enter the area and leave with a cartload of timber, while normal villagers have restricted access.
Ouch Leng, president of CHRTF, said that according to his research, 20 companies have destroyed 170,000 hectares of the sanctuary, despite 250,000 hectares of it once being protected by royal decree.
On top of that, Hun Sen’s team of volunteer youths, deployed before the election, had given 67,000 hectares to about 26,000 families.
“So the Oral area has lost 94 per cent of its forest,” he said.
Representatives of HLH and Yong Phat’s companies could not be reached.
Officials, meanwhile, were quiet about the decimation of the sanctuary.
Chhun Chhean Heng, sanctuary director, refused to comment on allegations he was complicit in the logging.
Deputy director Soeung Bun Heng said such allegations were things he did not listen to because “they are not true”.
Noa Nak, deputy director of the Kampong Speu provincial environment department, said that his team doesn’t inspect the sanctuary because it is under the control of the Ministry of Environment.
Officials from that ministry, including minister Say Sam El, could not be reached.
But villagers in the sanctuary are waiting for action from the government.
“I don’t trust them,” Kim Sath, the Buddhist monk, said. “That’s why we’re trying to protect it ourselves … until they can preserve it properly.”