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Villagers ‘paid to log’ lost land

In Ratanakkiri province, an area of forest is being cleared by machinery in an economic land concession
In Ratanakkiri province, an area of forest is being cleared by machinery in an economic land concession. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Villagers ‘paid to log’ lost land

Local communities that lost their land via economic land concessions to private companies are now being paid by those same firms to illegally fell the trees that once sustained their livelihoods, a group of five advocacy groups contended yesterday.

At a press conference, the NGOs singled out 18 companies they say have been exploiting local villagers who see few alternatives to make ends meet.

Rights group Adhoc, along with the Natural Resources and Wildlife Preservation Organization, the Coalition of Cambodian Farmers Community, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) and the Community Peace Building Network Cambodia, said they would file complaints to the authorities if action was not taken.

“After this appeal, if the government does not take any action, we will file complaints to a judicial institution and the Anti-Corruption Unit against some 100 individuals who are … police, military police, oknhas and business people,” said Chan Soveth, a senior investigator with Adhoc.

Employing local forest communities to illegally fell trees is a new strategy pioneered by tycoon Try Pheap, according to CCHR’s senior natural resources researcher, Chhem Savuth.

“About 80 per cent of the population in Preah Vihear’s Rovieng and Cheb districts [are involved in logging] for the companies, because they think the government does not take measures to prevent it, and if they do not log, the companies will log them all [anyway],” he said.

Last week, the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force reported that Pheap’s companies possessed nearly 70,000 hectares through a number of subsidiaries in order to export luxury timber abroad in breach of Cambodian law. Try Pheap denies the claim and has filed for defamation against two people quoted in the report.

Try Pheap, director of MDS Import-Export Co, Ltd, could not be reached yesterday.

Savoeun said forest land had been sold off to companies at an alarming rate, causing farming communities to lose their incomes and rely on logging for the companies.

“Granting ELCs to the companies effects people’s land, leading those people to lose their occupations and forcing them to log for the companies for survival,” he said.

But despite people being put in this situation, he added, many more were angry and frustrated.

“A people’s movement will occur, even though they know they would be in danger, because the forest crimes bring about climate changes,” he said.

Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said unless clear evidence of wrongdoing was presented, the government would not take action.

“The evidence should be clarified clearly; which official has done something wrong and where. If they just hint, it is just an attack and it is not a measure to help crack down on forest crimes,” he said. “We have clear principles for preserving and conserving the forest, and we will not work with the [NGOs’] appeal,” he said.

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