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Riding the Mekong - river of timber

Riding the Mekong - river of timber

F RESHLY cut logs can be seen all along the Mekong river from Kratie to the Laotian

border.

According to people who recently undertook the trip from Phnom Penh to the Lao border

by boat, logging is being managed by military units in Stung Treng and Kratie provinces

for private companies.

Traveling along the Mekong and talking with locals in Kratie and Stung Treng is like

writing a chronicle of cut trees in disappearing forests.

From pictures and the accounts of people who have made the trip, numerous freshly

cut logs are lying on the river banks between the two provinces, waiting to be shipped

out.

"In Kratie town, I saw about 50 trucks entering the town around 6 p.m. They

were coming from Snoul district [near the Vietnamese border] to bring the logs near

the river and get it prepared to be shipped to Phnom Penh," said one aid worker.

"They prepare two boats between which they put the logs to form a platform on

which they can put more logs. At the top, the soldiers who look after the wood set

up small houses."

According to travelers on the Mekong, previously unsafe areas between Kratie and

Stung Treng have been secured recently.

"Before, this area was not secure. This time, I saw well equipped and armed

soldiers on the banks of the river. I am sure that it has to do with the logs - to

secure their way on the river," said another NGO worker.

Siembok district, south of Stung Treng, seemed to be one of the biggest targets of

loggers but timber in other districts had also been cut.

People in Stung Treng and Kratie speak with care about the issue, say NGO workers.

They know the military are involved in the cutting and that it is better not to be

too talkative.

Soldiers have three times threatened public servants in Stung Treng for trying to

get information on the logs, one of the aid workers said.

But after some time to get the confidence of local people, he said it was possible

to get a glimpse into the level of logging.

In Sambor district and in Stung Treng, villagers repeated the same complaint: "We

used to be able to go and cut trees within 100 to 200 meters around our houses. Now

we have to walk up to 40 kilometers to be able to find wood good enough to build

our houses."

"The military are cutting, we are cutting also, to make a living and be able

to buy buffaloes," is the line from many villagers, according to the aid worker.

"They are aware of the dangers but they have no choice and no way to control,"

he said, adding that the villagers cut timber for soldiers.

"The military are cheating the villagers. They ask them to go and cut the wood

but never pay them.

"In some areas, it is impossible to enter because the land has been sold to

companies," villagers in one place complained.

In Stung Treng a knowledgeable local told the NGO worker that he can do nothing but

observe the situation evolve.

"For the past two years, the logs have been sent to the border with Laos. I

think this year they are being sent across the border."

Of the local military, he suggested that, because the Khmer Rouge had been quiet

in recent months, the soldiers were "fighting the forest rather than the Khmer

Rouge."

According to local authorities, most of the good quality timber has already disappeared

from Stung Treng.

"According to the people we talk with, the level of the wood being cut has really

increased this year," the traveler said

"They told us that there were no more beng," said one aid worker of a particularly

valuable type of tree.

A "chronic disease that has not been cured yet," is how one Stung Treng

villager described the logging.

Unable to stop or prevent anything, he writes down what he sees as a kind of private

testimony.

Upon his arrival back in Phnom Penh, the traveler remarked: "I have been here

for four years. In this trip along the river, I saw peacocks and birds that I have

never seen before in Cambodia. What's going to happen to them once the forest disappears?"

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