Villagers Fighting Korean Tree Farm ‘Hopeless’ After Meeting

Members of the Prey Lang Community Network said yesterday that they felt hopeless after the South Korean Embassy refused to accept their petition against a South Korean company clearing their ancestral forests.

Fourteen representatives of the network, a loose affiliation of communities living in and around central Cambodia’s Prey Lang forest, traveled to Phnom Penh yesterday morning to meet with embassy officials to complain about Think Biotech.

Members of the Prey Lang Community Network attempt to deliver a petition criticizing Think Biotech at the South Korean Embassy in Phnom Penh on Tuesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

The government granted the firm a sprawling 34,000-hectare concession in 2011 to grow timber trees. But most of it covers pre-existing forest, including four officially recognized community forests the government has given local residents for sustainable use. The communities consider parts of the forest sacred, and use them to tap resin trees, harvest honey, cultivate small farms and otherwise earn a living.

Hul Vet, one of the representatives, said a South Korean Embassy official who met with them yesterday refused to accept their petition asking for help in getting the company to stop cutting down their forests.

“He said he could not accept our petition and gave no reason,” Mr. Vet said. “I told him it was affecting our community forests and he said, ‘We have not studied it yet; we will contact the Royal Government.’”

The official, whose name and position the petitioners did not record, also said he would contact the company, though Mr. Vet said the offer left them “hopeless.”

The group said hundreds of families relied on the thousands of hectares the company was clearing in Kratie and Stung Treng provinces.

“When we lose our farms, we lose the income to support our families,” said Vorn Trai, who also made the trip. “Thepeople in our community are losing their jobs. When the forest is gone, how can we find resin or honey?”

The South Korean Embassy could not be reached for comment.

Senior officers for Think Biotech could not be reached either. But Kong Kan, a project officer for the company, rejected the network’s complaint.

“The company has not grabbed the people’s land,” he said. “We consider the people in those areas potential partners of the company. Our development needs the people’s participation.”

U.S. satellite data collected and analyzed by Global Forest Watch, however, show that the company clear-cut hundreds, possibly thousands, of hectares of forest on its concession in 2014 and 2015, including parts of the community forests. Similar data after 2015 is not yet available.

A spokesman for the Agriculture Ministry, which manages the country’s agribusiness concessions, could not be reached.

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