Opposition questions minister
After being questioned for more than two hours at the National Assembly yesterday, Environment Minister Say Samal claimed the number of forest crimes decreased in 2016, but acknowledged that some government officials were involved in some of the crimes.
A recently released report from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark said logging crimes in the protected Prey Lang forest had increased by 14 percent compared with last year.
Mr. Samal was summoned to the third commission of the National Assembly yesterday to answer questions from members of the opposition, led by CNRP official Pol Hom.
Mr. Hom also asked Mr. Samal about garbage management in Phnom Penh and other major cities, land concessions causing deforestation, natural resource conservation areas and forest crimes.
When asked about the continued illegal logging of the country’s forests, Mr. Samal told reporters after the meeting that his ministry is investigating government officials involved in forest crimes and will take legal action against anyone who is caught.
“We have done this for every case, but I cannot tell you because some cases are still under investigation. I can say that we have our targets, but I cannot say more than that,” he said.
Mr. Samal has been criticized in the past for his statements about illegal logging and deforestation. Last June, he claimed all major forest crimes had stopped because of the work of a task force set up by Prime Minister Hun Sen in January 2016.
After six months, few arrests and a number of court cases were slowly making their way through the judiciary, but the task force claimed its job was done.
The government then created another task force last month to deal with forest crimes after Sao Sokha, the commander in chief of the military police and head of the first task force, admitted that deforestation and illegal logging were not only continuing, but increasing.
Mr. Sokha was put in charge of the new task force, which he says is “planning strategies to prevent forestry, wildlife and mining crimes as well as have the offenders arrested.”
The annual Environment Ministry review released late last month says nearly 600 forest crimes were committed in protected areas in 2016 and 700 cases of wildlife, fishing and land crimes were found.
The government sent only 35 of these cases to court.
Hoeun Sopheap, a Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) representative from Kampong Thom province, said that despite the government designating Prey Lang as a protected area and increasing measures to crack down on forestry crime, illegal logging and timber exports still occurred, especially by traders transporting timber at night.
“Through the report in four provinces, we see no decrease and no increase either, which means that trafficking is the same and timber transport is still happening,” he said.
He added that besides deforestation, the PLCN also found that some local authorities – such as police as well as commune and village chiefs – were involved in logging and conspired with dealers to transport timber out of their areas.
Mr. Sopheap worked with the University of Copenhagen on their report and agreed with their assessment of Prey Lang.
“Deforestation and illegal logging are still serious threats to Prey Lang,” the university wrote in their fifth monitoring report on Prey Lang released in late December.
Mr. Samal said he had read the report and added that he was frustrated that the university did not try to work with the ministry before releasing it.
After the assembly session, Mr. Hom said the opposition wanted to verify information with Mr. Samal about forest crimes, adding that the Environment Minister’s answers on the topic and on waste management were acceptable, but showed that the government needed to do more to fix problems in both sectors.
“The garbage management problem hasn’t been completely improved,” he said.
“As we see on some streets, there is an unusual amount of garbage and medical waste. There are also many crimes related to forests and natural resources that are still happening.
“However, the third commission does not accuse the government of doing nothing. We have seen effort, but it is not 100 percent improved.”
Mr. Samal agreed that garbage management was still in its infancy and had not improved enough, but said he was committed to working with local authorities to solve the problem.
The government, he said, is setting up a plan to manage garbage collection in stages and plans to farm out the task of monitoring the process to sub-national administrations.
The country’s issues with garbage collection took over the airwaves after last November’s Water Festival, when a video posted to Facebook showed workers sweeping garbage into the Tonle Sap.
CINTRI, the country’s contracted waste management company, and the Public Works Ministry both denied the workers were theirs.
Mr. Samal publicly criticized CINTRI for the video and for the lack of clean streets after the festival, saying the company needed to work harder and expand its capabilities.
But the lack of enforcement in waste management has led many citizens to continue using old methods for waste disposal. Last month, Mr. Samal’s ministry sent out a warning to Phnom Penh City Hall, telling them to stop residents on the outskirts of the city from dumping trash in the river.
But almost a month later, trash was still overflowing in the area and residents told a local media outlet that no one had come to tell them to stop, much less punish them for their actions.
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