Kampong Thom province
Deep in Prey Lang forest, a group of villagers advocating on behalf of the embattled woodland area are paying with their health.
About 50 of a group of 230 villagers who have spent their days patrolling the woods for illegal loggers and their nights sleeping under the trees have fallen ill, NGO officials told the Post yesterday.
Villagers representing three of the four provinces that Prey Lang overlaps decided to walk from their homes to meet at the town of O’Chrok, with villagers from Stung Treng and Preah Vihear beginning their trek on November 2 and villagers from Kampong Thom following on November 4. A previously planned meeting point, Damnak Mean, was discarded in favour of O’Chrok after villagers were confronted by about 30 police officers on Monday.
Chheng Sophors, senior investigator for rights group Licadho, said that many villagers are now developing fevers, vomiting and exhibiting other symptoms of malaria, adding that they have been sleeping in the jungle without shelter or mosquito nets, often in the rain.
He added that despite the illness and frequent lack of drinking water, they have still been carrying out their daily patrols in search of illegal logging, recently confiscating three chainsaws and burning a cache of illegally logged wood, though they have yet to confront rubber firm CRCK. He also pointed out that NGOs are simply monitoring the situation at this point.
“Speaking for the NGOs, we are just monitoring, because we are afraid that there will be an argument with illegal loggers, [who] are powerful people,” he said. “[But] we now provide villagers medicine for treatment.”
Chhim Savuth, project coordinator for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said that he was proud of the way villagers are standing up against illegal loggers, though he said it was painful for him that even some locals are guilty of cutting down trees, a situation he described as “anarchy in Prey Lang.”
He also questioned why authorities are not actively helping villagers in their quest to protect Cambodia’s natural resources. “If a provincial governor says that there is not illegal logging or cutting down of trees, please, follow me – I will bring him to see Prey Lang,” he said.
Prey Lang is the last large forested area in Cambodia and spans the provinces of Kratie, Stoeung Treng, Kampong Thom and Preah Vihear, covering some 3,600 square kilometres of northern Cambodia.
Ouch Sam On, deputy governor of Kampong Thom province, said that most villagers who have descended on his province to confront illegal logging would not have come were it not for the influence of their organisers.
“They have the organiser, otherwise they will not come like this,” he said. “I think villagers have the right to expression, but they have no right to stop the company from doing their job, because the government gave them the right to develop. What the villagers do is wrong.”