PHNOM PENH, Sept. 19 (RFA)- Nine forest communities across Cambodia on Friday expressed concern about illegal land encroachment and logging operations as a European Union-funded sustainable forest management project which helped communities in wooded areas thrive comes to an end.
Representatives from nine forest provinces – Kampot, Kep, Takeo, Pursat, Kampong Thom, Preah Vihear, Kratie, Stung Treng and Ratanakiri – said during a national workshop on the project in Phnom Penh that once the funding ends this month, instances of illegal land encroachment and logging will increase.
Kalyan Hou, the Cambodia coordinator of The Center for People and Forests (RECOFTC) said the EU funding helped reduce poverty in the country and allowed villagers to develop sustainable food supplies.
Without finding from the EU, the forest communities would face management issues, she told RFA’s Khmer Service. “We want the EU to continue supporting us,” she said.
Chhuon Phal, a forest community representative from northern Cambodia’s Stung Treng province, said the EU-funded project taught villagers how to use forest resources in their daily lives.
The U.S. $1.6 million sustainable forest management project began in December 2010 and covers 136,666 hectares (337,700 acres) of land on which 42,566 families live.
Three arrests in Kampong Thom
In a related development, authorities in central Cambodia’s Kampong Thom province arrested three villagers in Stoung district on Friday on charges of encroaching upon reserved forestland, although residents claimed the trio was unjustly taken into custody.
Suth Mary, the Kampong Thmar forestry director in Stoung commune, said he complied with a court order to arrest the three villagers after they encroached upon state reserved forest territory. “We arrested them on account of the prosecutor’s order,” he said.
But Chan Vanna, the father of those arrested, told RFA that forestry officials forced his family to surrender his house and plantation land to them after they claimed it was state land.
The family had moved into the house in 2011 and stayed there without any problems until now, he said.
Authorities also asked him to stop protesting against the forced eviction plan in the area, he said, adding that his children were arrested because he refused to hand over his land.
“I urge the government give me land and shelter because I voted for the government,” he said.
Chhuom Run, provincial coordinator for the domestic rights group Licadho, said there was an irregularity concerning the trio’s arrest, and that the three had not yet been sent to court.
He pointed out that because the authorities did not see the three villagers encroaching upon the land in question, there was no evidence on which to base their arrest, he said, adding that Licadho would continue to monitor the case.
Officials accused of colluding
Meanwhile, Kuy indigenous villagers in Rovieng district in northern Cambodia’s Preah Vihear province have accused local forestry officials of colluding with illegal loggers who were felling trees in their forest community.
Members of the forest community, which is located inside Boeung Pe Wildlife Sanctuary, detained eight illegal loggers on Sept. 8 and confiscated 53 pieces of luxury hardwood, three trucks and three guns, community leader Ro Lin told RFA.
“We are guarding the forest day and night because the illegal loggers are secretly logging,” he said, adding that at least one or two loggers illegally fell trees daily in the area.
The members of the forest community handed over the confiscated items to forestry officials, who released the detained loggers several days later, he said, raising suspicions that authorities were colluding with illegal loggers.
Such actions only motivate illegal loggers to continue felling trees, he added.
Yann Bunsoeun, director of the Boeung Pe Wildlife Sanctuary, denied the charge, saying his officials had not committed any acts of corruption, and that each day he deployed his forces to patrol logging activity in the community.
He said the eight loggers were released after they had paid fines. “We didn’t release them without reason, because we already had fined them,” he said. “Just a moment ago we deployed our forces to work with the community to stop illegal loggers.”
Cambodia has had the highest rate of tree-cover loss among all countries in the world since 2001, according to satellite data issued earlier this month by the Washington-based World Resources Institute (WRI).
From 2001-2013, Cambodia lost 1.45 million hectares (3.6 million acres) of tree cover mostly due to firms that have government-granted economic land concessions and illegally harvest timber, WRI said.