Environmental activists say illegal logging in Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary is happening almost every day, as foreign researchers released new data indicating high levels of small-scale, selective logging in the deep forest.
Hoeun Sopheap, coordinator in Kampong Thom province for the Prey Lang Community Network, whose independent forest patrols were banned by authorities last year, said that he and other members have witnessed loggers carrying timber out of the sanctuary almost every day.
The grassroots group with international funding was banned from patrolling the 430,000-hectare sanctuary in February before it was able to host an annual awareness-raising ceremony, and Sopheap and others say logging has increased ever since.
According to the activist, PLCN members monitor the forest from outside the sanctuary boundaries, and they have seen an increase in logging for larger trees, saying big trees are disappearing from the sanctuary and could be gone in five years.
“We only look at each rangers’ station and the entrance they guard, but why is wood still coming out through that gate?” he said. “I estimate the longest is five years. If there is no reinstituting of our group to patrol in Prey Lang again, the longest is five more years, [and] Prey Lang will be gone.”
The Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary covers four provinces and is buttressed by a handful of forestry and farming concessions, which activists and researchers say have shielded a network of large-scale illicit timber trade. Though the government has denied the claims, the protected area has shed stunning amounts of forest cover in the last five years. Meanwhile, the Mines and Energy Ministry recently approved a transmission line project running through the heart of the forest, which conservationists fear would pierce the thickest sections of canopy.
A new report released this month from a team of foreign researchers using satellite data supports the claims of selective logging for valuable timber. The report, published by the European Commission, estimates that 9,384 hectares throughout Prey Lang were affected by canopy disturbances — which can detect small-scale felling as well as forest clearing — between March 2019 and February 2020, based on satellite imagery.
Using a new approach that looks at a more detailed view of the forest canopy from the E.U.’s Joint Research Center satellite data, the researchers found that 51,000 small areas of around 0.1 hectares had likely been selectively logged deep inside the sanctuary during that period. The researchers also found 736 larger areas averaging 5.8 hectares that also lost forest cover due to forest clearing — an estimate similar to what had previously been reported by the center’s data.
Environment Ministry spokesperson Neth Pheaktra did not respond to questions about logging in Prey Lang on Friday, but he told reporters in December that logging was only occurring in the sanctuary on a small scale.
Duong Chhay Savuth, the director of Kratie province’s environment department, said officials recently responded to a Facebook video of timber being transported out of the sanctuary through Kratie’s Sambor district, but could not find the case. The footage, seen by VOD, had no timestamp or location attached and therefore could not be confirmed.
“I do not dare to say that the information [the Facebook user] published is true or false, just when I received this information immediately, my officials went down to prevent it immediately but no such case occurs,” he said. “I would just like to confirm that if such a case occurs, give me information immediately, [and] I will take action immediately.”
However, PLCN’s Preah Vihear coordinator Srey Thei said activists tracked the current operations of loggers and found that companies send small groups to cut trees in the forest and bring them out on trailers to trucks awaiting in provincial capitals.
“We do not have hope in the authorities because they seem to pave the way for transporting timber forever,” he said.
Suon Chanty, PLCN’s Kratie province coordinator, repeated Thei’s assessment, saying that it would be easy to see if authorities stopped the timber trade.
“At night time, it is tumultuous — both vehicles and motorcycles [leave the forest with timber], and we have not seen any expert officers preventing this,” she said. “If it was being prevented, there would be no transport day and night like this.”
Additional reporting by Danielle Keeton-Olsen
(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)