A forest concession logging truck transports illegally felled resin tree logs from Sandan District, Kampong Thom.
Last week, the appearance of two innocuous looking white plastic tags on a tree near
his home radically changed the life prospects for twenty-five year old Sao Phalla.
"They will cut my doem chbah (resin tree) soon," Phalla said sadly. "I
will have no other income to support my family if my resin trees are cut."
Phalla, like the vast majority of his neighbors in rural Tom Or village in Kampong
Thom's Sandan District, supplements his meager income by tapping the doem chbah trees
that thrive in the area and selling the resin to boat builders.
With local rice crops able to supply only between 4-6 months of food for the villagers,
the earnings derived from the sale of their resin are an essential stopgap against
hunger for resin tappers and their families.
The twin white tags, however, affixed on the trees by employees of the Malaysian
logging concessionaire Great Atlantic Timber International (GAT), signal that Phalla's
tree will soon be cut down.
According to Phalla and his neighbors, GAT's harvesting of resin trees in the area
pose a dire threat to a way of life that has sustained people in the region through
poor rice harvests, floods and drought for centuries.
"We love doem chbah the same way we love a woman we've just married," said
Tom Or villager Chan Son. "We take care of them like we take care of our eyes
because they are an important part of our lives."
Unfortunately for the people of Tom Or and neighboring villages, their resin trees
are now being illegally targeted for cutting by GAT and fellow concessionaires Colexim,
Mieng Leheang and Pheapimex Fuchan.
In Sandan District alone, more than 46 thousand resin trees have been cut and more
than 146 thousand resin trees have been tagged for cutting this dry season by forest
concession companies. In Tom Or village, where Phalla lives, more than 25,000 resin
trees have been tagged for harvesting by GAT.
Article 17 of Cambodia's current forest law states explicitly that felling trees
tapped for resin is strictly forbidden.
That directive is reinforced in Article 36 of the new draft forest law, currently
under consideration at the Council of Ministers, which states that it is prohibited
to cut trees from which villagers extract resin or to cut trees that yield high value
Mak Hieng, a Forestry Department official in Phnom Penh, says that the only exceptions
to the law outlawing the cutting of resin trees are instances in which logging concessionaires
negotiate with local people for the right to harvest their resin trees.
In Sandan District, however, logging concessionaires have routinely ignored that
requirement and cut resin trees at will.
"As far as I know, the concessionaires have never tried to contact us (to negotiate
cutting rights)," said Pen Nhap, Deputy Chief of Sandan's Tomreng Commune. "After
they get permission from the government, they just come and cut down the trees."
Those villagers who have agreed to sell their resin trees to logging concessionaires
claim that the companies have failed to pay for what they cut.
Chan Kroeun, 39, a Tomreng Commune resident, told the Post that he has never received
any compensation for 150 resin trees he says GAT has cut in the past two years. More
worringly, Kroeun says an additional 200 of his trees have been tagged for cutting.
"They [logging concessionaires] are pushing us out of our jobs," Kroeun
complained. "I'm very worried that violence and banditry will start because
we cannot just lie in our beds and wait to die [from a loss of their livelihood]."
Krouen's warning of possible violence between concessionaire guards and local villagers
is given added weight by the increasing siege atmosphere that the illegal cutting
is creating in affected villages.
Tom Or villagers now go into the forest to collect resin in groups and armed with
knives and axes for fear of encountering armed military concession guards whom they
accuse of intimidation.
The resin farmers plight has attracted the attention of environmental watchdog organization
Global Witness, which says the concessionaires are guilty of gross violations of
the local villagers' rights and livelihood.
According to Global Witness spokesperson Jon Buckrell, concessionaires have informed
villagers that their resin trees would be cut regardless of whether compensation
Buckrell says that in the few instances in which compensation agreements have been
negotiated, the agreed price did not come close to representing the true value of
the trees to the local community.
"That's not a choice, it's an ultimatum," Buckrell said of the concessionaires'
treatment of the villagers. "Such intimidation is completely unacceptable."
A lack of government resolve to protect the villagers and the local resin industry
from the depredations of the concessionaires was seriously harming an indigenous
system of sustainable forest management and the benefits if provided local communities,
Buckrell's comments are echoed by resin tapper Oum Sanh, 50.
A dying art? Sao Phalla collects resin from trees not yet illegally
felled by forest concessions
"If the government protects our right to tap resin, it will get more benefit
than it will be allowing the companies to log," he said. "We can support
our families by tapping and at the same time we protect the forest and maintain the
natural environment of Cambodia."
The illegal felling of resin trees by concessionaires has already had an economic
impact on fishermen for whom the resin is essential in sealing the hulls of their
Fisherman Bech Phally, 36, told the Post that resin prices had risen sharply in the
last year. Phally blamed the price hikes on the dwindling number of resin trees.
"I don't know what we will use to seal our boat if the resin disappears...I
hope the resin trees are not destroyed," he said.
Kong Hem, a 73-year-old Tom Or villager who has spent his life tapping resin trees,
says that only the intervention from the highest levels of the Cambodian government
would save the resin industry from destruction by concessionaire cutting.
"Samdech Euv [King Norodom Sihanouk], we are you sons and daughters, please
help us," Hem implored. "If the cutting continues, your children will die."