The Phnong ethnic minority in Mondulkiri province have heard the promises of development before.
With increasing investment and the selling off of the region’s forests will come new roads and schools, they are told.
But people in this ancient community, tired of seeing their sacred forests handed over to logging firms and felled with few of the promises fulfilled, say they would rather be left alone than exposed to this sort of “development”.
“There’s no need to offer us gifts. We can live on our own. Please leave the forest for us,” says Poeut Sovann, a Phnong woman who has patrolled the forest around Sen Monorom town for years to protect it from illegal loggers. “We do not need clean roads and schools. If we have them, we lose everything,” she adds.
Sovann spends her days trekking through the mountainous forests that span the border with Vietnam, where most of the timber logged here will end up. It is an impossible task, she says, because local officials who are supposed to work against the illegal logging syndicates are paid off, a claim the authorities denies.
According to officials, 28 companies hold economic land concessions in the province, covering almost 180,000 hectares.
Some in the community blame legislators in Phnom Penh for their plight. Regulations governing forests, the environment and natural resource exploitation, they say, have done little to assuage the companies’ desire for illegal raw timber.
Lam Chhin, a community representative from Pich Chinda district, said the laws have proved “useless” in practice.
“Burn all the laws, because the forest and environment laws are useless,” he said.
Chhin is especially concerned that companies in the province, having already felled most of the luxury rosewood, have moved on to cutting down protected resin trees and spirit forests where the Phnong minority build shrines to their dead.
“Please think about the livelihood of the minorities. Please make them happy, too. Don’t make them sad every day,” he said.
Pcherb Be, Sre Preah commune chief, who has been accused by villagers of taking kickbacks from illegal logging operations, declined to comment on the allegations, calling police to prevent any reporters from entering a village where forest crimes were being reported.
“I won’t let you go to the village, because you did not have permission from the local authority. If I am accused of corruption, show me the evidence,” he said.
Sroeung Nak, community representative in Sre Preah’s Keo Seima village, said while the laws offered his community protection in theory, enforcement was lacking.
“The royal government creating forest law is very good, but it is only on paper; the forest still disappears and the law also protects the business people exporting it to Vietnam or China,” he said.
Mloeuk Mal, community representative from Sen Monorom district, questioned why protection was not forthcoming from the officials. “Where are the forestry administration and environmental officers? Our forest is disappearing,” he said.
Saro Ratana, deputy director of Mondulkiri’s provincial forestry administration, blamed low staffing levels for the lack of action by the authorities.
“If any officer is seen conspiring with timber business people, if there is real evidence, please report it to me . . . I never committed corruption and am never involved in forest crimes.”
Yim Louch, deputy governor of Mondulkiri, said his administration had established “a lot of mechanisms” to combat the illegal timber trade, without elaborating.
He added that timber being transported to Vietnam by tycoon Try Pheap’s MDS Import Export Co was legally felled.
Yesterday, the Natural Resource and Wildlife Preservation Organization sent a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen asking for action to be taken against six companies accused of illegal logging in four provinces near the borders with Vietnam and Thailand, and for the government to reassess the licenses granted to Pheap and Kith Meng’s Royal Group.
Meng Sreng, a spokesman for Try Pheap, could not be reached for comment.