Activists Challenge Government Plan for Prey Lang Forest

Members of the Prey Lang Community Network on Monday urged the government to redraft its new plans for turning the forest into a protected area, complaining that the proposed site was too small and failed to include any land in Preah Vihear province.

The network, a loose association of communities living in and around Prey Lang, have been patrolling the lowland evergreen forest—the largest one left in Southeast Asia—for years, trying to keep illegal loggers and encroaching rubber plantations at bay. They spoke up at a workshop in Phnom Penh organized by the Environment Ministry to gather input on its plans to add five forests, including Prey Lang, to the country’s list of officially protected areas.

The government has been planning to turn Prey Lang into a protected area for years, and had already been criticized for earlier plans giving protected status to only 475,000 hectares of a forest originally spanning more than 600,000 hectares. A proposal unveiled at Monday’s workshop whittled the area down to about 300,000 hectares and left out most of the forest’s north.

That’s bad news for the communities in the area that still depend on the forest to get by, many of them members of indigenous minority groups.

“Prey Lang covers 610,000 hectares across four provinces. Now we ask to include 470,000 hectares in the protected area because it affects the people who live in the villages around Prey Lang,” said Thay Bunleang, a network member who attended the workshop.

“We want to include Preah Vihear province in the protected area,” said another network member who did not identify himself, also urging authorities to shut down the sawmills operating inside the forest.

“Prey Lang is being destroyed because there are many sawmills in the forest. So I ask that the sawmills be closed, otherwise the illegal logging will continue in Prey Lang.”

U.S. satellite images of Cambodia show deforestation eating away at Prey Lang from all sides, on the south and west especially. The same images show a country suffering one of the highest rates of forest loss in the world, much of it at the hands of agribusiness plantations clear-cutting inside existing protected areas.

The government has invited the Prey Lang network and similar groups to join authorities in saving the five new protected areas. At Monday’s workshop, however, Environment Ministry spokesman Sao Sopheap said the network would no longer be allowed to operate independently, and would be required to join the government patrols instead.

But those same groups are convinced that authorities are in league with illegal loggers and believe their independence is what makes them effective.

“We can’t accept the ban, and we will keep doing our work as we have done it before,” said Prey Lang network member Hoeun Sopheap. “The government wants to stop us because it doesn’t want the community people to see the forest crimes.”

The workshop was the public’s first look at the government’s new plans for Prey Lang and the other four forests it intends to turn into protected areas. Nongovernmental groups asked for more time to review the plans and give feedback.

Chay Samith, head of the Environment Ministry’s conservation and protection department, assured them that the discussions would continue. But some believe the government has already made up its mind and that the workshop was just for show.

“The Environment Ministry just wants the Prey Lang community to participate in the workshop, but it doesn’t want the ideas or opinions of the community because it has already made a decision,” said Som Chanmony, a team leader at the NGO Peace Bridges, which works with the Prey Lang network.

Chan Bun Hon, who has joined the network on several patrols and seen the dearth of law enforcement in Prey Lang first-hand, said he did not believe the government was committed to stopping the illegal loggers and that an ongoing crackdown on the timber trade was little more than a publicity stunt.

He ignored the event organizers’ efforts to silence him during a brief question-and-answer session.

“I would like to ask: Why have the local authorities not stopped the illegal logging, and why does the forest crime still continue today? I would like to ask [Prime Minister] Hun Sen. Why has he not stopped the forest crime?” Mr. Bun Hon said.

“Hun Sen gives an order to local authorities to stop the forest crime, and an hour later they find a big pile of wood in the forest. I think the government has no real desire to stop the illegal logging. If they wanted to, it wouldn’t be difficult.”

He dismissed the claims from government officials throughout the workshop that villagers clearing forests for small farms were the main threat.

“The problem is not the poor villagers,” he said. “It’s the syndicates who take out big truckloads from the forest.”

But conservationists don’t just doubt the government’s will. They’re not sure it has—or will find—the money and manpower to protect the five new sites.

The Environment Ministry has said the five forests will cover nearly one million hectares in total once their borders are set. This will add nearly a third more land to the jurisdiction of a ministry that admits it’s understaffed with rangers as it is. Conservation groups are hopeful that protected status will force the government’s hand in pushing more funding their way while convincing international donors to up their aid.

David Ashwell, a longtime conservationist who was around when Cambodia’s modern protected area system took shape in the 1990s, said he was optimistic.

“As a long-term contributor to this subject in Cambodia, I really do feel this is a historical opportunity,” he said. “It has many similarities to what we experienced in the early and mid-90s. The main difference, though, is that there’s a lot more capacity around now. There’s a lot of government capacity, non-government capacity, and more community capacity.”

The government has said it hopes to have the five new protected areas established by year’s end.

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