A task force made up of Preah Vihear provincial and district officials is set to begin a five-day investigation today into a slew of sawmills thought to be illegally milling and transporting timber from the protected Preah Roka forest after villagers and NGOs accused local officials of accepting bribes to turn a blind eye to the crimes.
Some mills in Tbeng Meanchey district – in which part of the forest falls – are suspected of operating without proper authorisation, according to Provincial Agriculture Department head Ping Trida.
Provincial Governor Un Chenda on Tuesday tasked provincial Military Police with leading a crew of officials from the agriculture and environment departments, as well as district authorities and armed forces, to inspect mills’ documentation, Trida said.
“In order to preserve and manage natural resources . . . we need to prevent and attend [to the issue] altogether,” he said.
The number of officials involved would depend on the size of the mill, he said, adding that those he was aware of were all small, family run enterprises. Still, he conceded that they contribute to destruction of the forest.
Trida denied local officials were complicit in illegal logging, however, saying while they often attempted to intercept illegal loggers, evidence to prosecute was rarely found. By sending the task force to the mills, he said, officials hoped to conduct a more thorough investigation and prevent other mills from setting up shop.
But according to local forest patroller Roeung Khan, the scale of the problem was downplayed by officials and propelled by lenience and bribes.
“The sawmills have operated four or five years already,” she said, estimating that up to 20 spread across Tbeng Meanchey alone. “They haul timber in daylight and night, damaged our road and broke a bridge. It is not a small scale.”
“The community is not like the government officials, who arrest and release in exchange for money. There is no exchange of money with us,” Khan said.
Poek Sophon, chief of advocacy for local land rights NGO Ponlok Khmer, said at least 10 mills were operating in the neighbouring Chheb district – which the forest also breaches – and around a dozen more were in nearby Preah Vihear Town. He claimed all reaped timber from Preah Roka.
While most mills claim to have government authorisation to operate, they do not have the authority to collect and haul timber, as could be seen happening daily, Sophon added.
Chenda, the provincial governor, could not be reached for comment.