A group of villagers from a community forest inside Preah Vihear province’s Phnom Tnout Wildlife Sanctuary are collecting thumbprints to evict a family that has been protecting the forest from illegal logging and preventing poaching of endangered species.
The petition comes from a group of villagers from inside and outside the community forest who want to expand their paddy fields. It also stems in part from a recent altercation between a villager who tried to resist a timber confiscation and environmental rangers accompanied by Ben Davis, who operates an eco-tourism business inside the sanctuary and conducts forest patrols.
The thumbprint collection – which the head of the sanctuary called “unreasonable” – comes on the heels of eight conservation organisations last week urging the government to take immediate action to halt the “rapid rate of destruction” of the sanctuary and the endangered species within it.
Soeu Cheng, who is helping collect the thumbprints, said a total of 150 families want to expand their farmland inside the Phnom Tnout Wildlife Sanctuary, but were not allowed to do so by the Davis family and environmental rangers, who have also seized their sling shots, machetes and axes.
The villagers – also including some who do not reside within the community forest – live in four villages in Sangkum Thmei district, Cheng said. They plan to file the petition to district authorities.
“Since before the Khmer New Year Day, some 100 thumbprints have been collected,” Cheng said. “The villagers want to get 300 to 400 thumbprints to force Mr. Ben to leave from the place because people find it hard to cultivate.”
In a separate case, on April 9, hundreds of villagers flocked to the Davis family’s home to protest after Ben and environmental officials seized three luxury thnong timber logs from villager Ke Samros, who tried to resist the confiscation.
Samros claimed the logs were felled last year, but the loggers managed to escape. Ben and authorities decided to leave the logs in her property at the time, but returned to seize them before the Khmer New Year.
“Why do you haul my timber without telling me?” Samros said she told Davis and the rangers at the time. “This land and timber belong to me since [it belonged to] my ancestors since I was young.”
Samros said she stood in front of the rangers’ vehicle to stop them from driving away, which prompted the rangers to handcuff her briefly.
Since Davis and his wife, Sharyn, built their home in the middle of the forest in 2015 and set up an eco-tourism business, they’ve been faced with challenges in protecting the forest, including complaints from villagers who are not happy with their efforts as it’s keeping them away from logging and hunting wildlife.
Ben Davis said he wasn’t aware of the petition against his family, but his actions were to protect the natural resources and provide benefits to the community through his eco-tourism business.
He said some villagers are not happy with his work because they cannot illegally log and poach wildlife animals. However, Ben said villagers are allowed to enter the forest to cultivate their rice plantations.
“But if they hunt animals and log timber, I really stop them,” he said. “They want to expand their farmland by 20 to 30 metres, or half a hectare every year. We ban [them] because we follow the Environment Ministry. I have not violated the environmental law.”
Chea Samang, head of protected areas for the Ministry of Environment, said the family was taking the appropriate action and that officials were currently trying to resolve the issue.
“We support the protection of natural resources,” he said.
Meanwhile, Meas Nhem, head of the Phnom Tnout Wildlife Sanctuary, described the petition as “unreasonable”.
“Their purpose is to [complain against] Ben to leave so they can clear the forestland illegally,” he said. “Their action is illegal.”
Additional reporting by Yesenia Amaro