KAMPONG THOM/PREAH VIHEAR – The high-pitched whine of chainsaws drowned out the sound of birds and bugs you usually hear during any trek through Prey Lang forest.
What was once an area full of animals scurrying under the shade of gargantuan trees is now largely populated by stumps and ash.
The desolation of an area once cherished by generations who grew up near and within it is the work of companies which have been encouraging citizens to log trees and sell the timber to them.
One of these firms, 95 Company, says it legally has the right to buy timber from local residents who cut down trees on economic land concessions (ELCs) in the area.
The Thy Nga company in Chey Sen district in Preah Vihear province, which owns one of the ELCs from which people log copious amounts of wood, controls Srae village with an iron grip, going so far as to build a “control” station on one of the only roads in the village to check and stop people moving in and out of the area.
As the sound of the chainsaws came to an end about 4pm, trucks carrying wood covered in plastic tarps started their journey out of the forest.
The sight of massive logging operations in Prey Lang forest would surprise many who took Prime Minister Hun Sen at his word when he signed a sub-decree making Prey Lang a protected conservation area in May.
Yet the sub-decree has done little to stop, or even slow down, companies voraciously logging the forest.
Sophat, who asked us to use a pseudonym due to the danger involved in his work, had bundles of vines weighing his right shoulder down as he told of the blatant deforestation he and many others are witnessing on a daily basis. Residents in Chey Sen said there is almost nothing to stop companies from continuing to brazenly log the forest.
Mr. Sophat told Khmer Times that companies often hired people from his village to buy and sell wood to them.
Generally, companies want the highly valuable rosewood, which is one of the most in-demand species of timber in Asia. But the companies paying people to log Prey Lang are far less choosy these days. Besides flywood or resin trees, they will take any kind of wood from any kind of tree, Mr. Sophat said.
Many of the people logging these trees hail from Stoung district in Kampong Thom province as well as Kampong Cham province.
“They come to log with proper dealers. If not, they cannot log here,” Mr. Sophat said.
While riding on his two-wheel tractor, three large trucks carrying large slabs of wood covered in tarps went past. Mr. Sophat could not estimate how much wood was on each truck, but said he saw at least seven to 10 trucks carrying wood each day.
“We are citizens, yet when we go in or out of the village, the company’s security guards, who are part of the army, ask us questions and check us. If the person is a stranger, they are not allowed to enter the village,” he said.
“But for the trucks, we never see anyone ask them anything or stop them from entering. They open the barrier and have free access. The dealers say the company has had a legal right to buy wood from ELCs since 2015.
“I didn’t sell our wood, but they have cut it all. I tried to search for it. I saw my resin tree and other citizens’ flywood trees with the 95 Company,” he added.
Nguon, who also asked us to use a pseudonym, echoed Mr. Sophat’s statements almost word for word, telling Khmer Times that flywood trees on her own land were ripped out and sold without her permission. When she asked the company about it, she was threatened with arrest if she dared to protest. “I am a citizen living in the forest who earns money from the resin in flywood trees, which I use to support my family. Now I can only do farming because there is no resin to sell anymore,” she said.
Carrying reeds between the coffee-colored fingers on her left hand, Ms. Nguon said that for the last year, she has seen a massive influx of people coming to the area to log wood, using ox and buffalo carts to transport the timber.
“It’s okay [to cut] resin trees, which have been cut in the past,” she said. “But I tried to save at least 10 resin trees so I could build a home. One day, while I was busy and couldn’t go to the farm, my resin trees were cut down and stolen.”
More than the disturbing frequency and nature of the deforestation going on in Prey Lang is the fear in the faces of those speaking about what they have seen was palpable. People were truly terrified to discuss anything related to the logging operations in the area.
A man who asked to be called Mr. Mab said he was traveling with a group of four local residents to log and transport wood. He did not know who the dealers were but said they were communicating with the local residents he was working with. Once a deal had been struck, the group took a buffalo cart into Prey Lang.
“I do not know who the dealers are. I just came here for logging and then to carry the wood for them for about 450,000 riel per cubic meter. They said that they do not care about the authorities, but were worried about the community officials,” he said. “He told me that if we saw them, just run and they will deal with problems with the logging machine later.”
As three more trucks carrying wood zoomed past him, Mr. Mab said he had previously logged wood in Pursat, Koh Kong, Rattanakiri and Strung Treng provinces. He moved to the forests of Prey Lang because he “heard it was easy to run a business.”
“In fact, it is very difficult in this business if we don’t have a dealer. But if we have a dealer, we just have to log for them to get our money. It is different from a few years ago, when dealers cheated us a lot,” he added.
“When we gave them wood, they would give us the money a month later or just cheat us. But now, it is easier because there is a lack of wood. We don’t know how we can survive if we run out of wood to cut.”
Dealers, he said, encourage local residents and outsiders alike to log the forest, telling them that it is “easy money” and will allow them to provide for their families. No one will arrest them because government officials are cooperating with them, he added.
“In the past, I also tried to protect the forest, but life as a forest protection official is faced with challenges and threats, which made me start logging because most villagers have started to log too,” he said.
Timber dealers, serving as middlemen between the local residents who log the wood and the companies buying it for processing, were open about their operation and even went so far as to say the logging benefited everyone.
Mr. Chorn, a wood buyer from Bangkan village in Reab Roy commune who sells to 95 Company, said there are almost no flywood trees left in the area because companies have previously offered 20,000 to 30,000 riel per tree. Now, he buys trees from local citizens for 70,000 riel per cubic meter and sells it to companies for a profit of about $10 to $15 per cubic meter.
“The company has had logging machines in their ELC for about five to six months already. They buy all kinds of wood because these days, there is no number one wood anymore,” he said.
Reab Roy commune chief Chouy Meas said that during the dry season last year, Saron, a representative of 95 Company, came to the area to announce that the company was buying logged wood for the price of $150 per cubic meter.
“They told everyone that logging is to help the citizens’ livelihoods improve,” he said.
He added that even when some local residents refused to log or sell their trees to the company, they would unilaterally chop the timber down and claim the trees were found on company land.
Despite his criticisms, Mr. Meas said he has also sold more than 100 of his flywood trees to the company for 20,000 riel each. The trees were from Prey Lang, but he said he has seen the company log wood along the border with Kratie and Stung Treng provinces.
Khmer Times tried to speak with a forestry administration official who was found sleeping in a hammock near a station in Mean Rith commune as a large truck carrying wood whizzed by, but he declined to discuss the issue and walked away.
Samdan district forestry administration official Chan Monyneath also declined to comment, saying he was “too busy” to discuss illegal logging in the area.
Ouch Leng, president of the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force (CHRTF) and an ardent monitor of the country’s forests, said the sawmill used by 95 Company belongs to Seng Keang and her brother Seng Kokheang, who serves as a two-star general in the army.
Mr. Kokheang, he said, was in charge of a unit stationed in an ELC owned by PNT Co. Ltd., which is owned by Vietnamese national Phan Huu Nam. Mr. Huu Nam is known for investing in agriculture and rubber plantations, and already has an agreement with the government to hold the rights to 7,900 hectares in Preah Vihear’s province’s Veang district.
“In the last year alone, 95 Company has collected thousands of trees, especially resin flywood trees from the Prey Lang conservation area.
Teams with CHRTF found three big sawmills from 95 Company and they are deploying workers to cut wood from the forest,” he said. The company has cut down a huge amount of flywood trees in the last month alone.
Mr. Leng said only five percent of the flywood trees in Kampong Thom province remained, and more logging was being done on the border with Kratie, Preah Vihear and Strung Treng provinces.
In Preah Vihear, approximately 20 percent of flywood trees in the area remain. The company has managed to clear its way into the center of Prey Lang forest, which has the highest concentration of flywood trees in the area.
“The company plans to cut resin [flywood] trees in the dry season next year, with the company dealer ‘Ron’ coming here several times to negotiate with villagers in Spang village about buying resin trees,” he added.
Others told horror stories of dealing with the company. Em Pov, a resident of Spang village in Strung Treng province, said he lost more than 500 resin trees in the O’Ack Dek area because ‘Ron’, the dealer for 95 Company, cut the trees down without asking him. The company only gave him $50 for all of the trees, and told him that if he did not take it, he would get nothing.
He said they told him there was nothing he could do to the company, so he had to accept their offer.
The sawmill, operated by 95 Company and other corporations that own ELCs in the region, has been running since 2015 in Mean Rith village in Kampong Thom province. Within six months, the company collected and destroyed so many trees that now many local residents refer to it as a “desert.” The central point of Prey Lang forest, Stung Pongrang, has been logged almost to extinction.
Mr. Leng added that a second sawmill in an ELC owned by Thy Nga, which is in turn owned by Vietnamese national Seng Rithy, had received assistance from the government since 2009 and had a 70-year agreement with them for 6,060 hectares of land in Srae village, Reab Roy commune in Preah Vihear province, after mowing through the remaining amount of wood left on their original ELC in Kampong Thom.
A third sawmill has been seen in Bangkan village in Preah Vihear province. Wood is collected from an ELC owned by PNT, but the company dealer buys and logs flywood trees from the community in Prey Lang.
“This proves that the Prey Lang conservation area is on paper only. According to our observation, 95 Company is very powerful and has run the wood business since the ’90s without any suppression from the government,” Mr. Leng said.
“The company also had a sawmill in an ELC owned by CRICK and has completely cut down many of the trees in the forest of Prey Lang in Kampong Thom province since 2012. They have many sawmills in Koh Nhek in Mondulkiri province and one in Rattanakiri province.”
In April, the government decided to turn the 400,000 hectares of Prey Lang into a conservation area. Prey Lang stretches across four provinces – Preah Vihear, Kratie, Stung Treng and Kampong Thom. The forests of Prey Lang have supported thousands of families and nearly 400 villages who rely on the trees there for resin, vines and fruit.
Spokesman for the Environment Ministry Sao Sopheap said he also received information from the community about logging in Prey Lang and officials have been assigned from the provincial environmental offices to “do research” and “monitor this matter.”
“Related to 95 Company, it may stay outside of the wildlife areas because when we made Prey Lang and the conservation area, it had no private companies in it,” he said, ignoring eyewitness reports of the exact opposite.
According to a 2015-2016 annual review by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, forest cover fell to only 49.5 percent of the country, down from 73 percent more than a decade earlier. The report said the number will continue to fall unless illegal logging, forest burning and land grabs are stopped immediately.
Mr. Sophat was not hopeful for the future if things continue the way they have been and said the government had shown no effort outside of the press to actually deal with the issue of deforestation.
“They said it is a conservation area, but I have never seen a truck carrying wood rest for even a moment in Prey Lang,” he said. “Please help us stop this before it is too late.”
An arial view of one of the sawmills processing timber from the Prey Lang area. Supplied