Officials Block Prey Lang Activists From Forest Ahead of Annual Event

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Armed police monitor participants of a tree blessing ceremony in Prey Lang protected forest in 2019 (Licadho)

The Environment Ministry and local authorities on Friday prevented hundreds of environmental rights advocates and others from entering the Prey Lang protected area for an annual forest conservation event set for the weekend, a ministry spokesman and rights group said.

Spokesman Neth Pheaktra told VOD that the ministry had banned the forest blessing ceremony hosted by conservation and forest patrol group Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) because the organization is not registered with the Interior Ministry. 

“Very unfortunately, they are not a registered entity, [and] entered the protected area illegally and without permission to supposedly play the police,” Pheaktra said in a message.

He cited Article 11 of the Protected Areas Law to justify the officials’ actions, claiming that the group had entered a “core zone” of a protected area.

The law says access to core zones, defined as areas containing threatened and critically endangered species, is limited to nature conservation officials and scientific researchers, and requires permission from the Environment Ministry.

Human rights group Licadho said in a statement that hundreds of community members, monks and activists had been told not to enter the wildlife sanctuary by local and Environment Ministry officials, some of whom were armed.

Authorities told participants they would need “official permission letters” from “higher level” officials in order to hold the event, the statement said.

Designated a wildlife sanctuary in 2016, Prey Lang spans about 430,000 hectares across Kratie, Stung Treng, Kampong Thom and Preah Vihear provinces. It has lost nearly 42,000 hectares — or about 10 percent — of its forest cover between 2001 and 2018, according to Global Forest Watch satellite data.

In an update of their monitoring activities from last month, PLCN reported an average of 89 illegal activities per month between June 2018 and last June, which include sightings of logging, tree stumps and timber transport vehicles within sanctuary boundaries.

During PLCN’s annual forest protection event, activists and residents meet in provincial towns, and then gather inside the sanctuary for a Buddhist blessing ceremony to promote conservation and raise awareness about illegal logging.

PLCN coordinators told VOD on Friday that they were meeting with local officials to assess whether they can still hold the ceremony, scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.

Srey Thei, a coordinator for Preah Vihear province, said he had heard rumors that authorities would prevent his province’s activists from going into the forest on Saturday morning. He said he planned to meet with a local police chief to discuss gaining access to the sanctuary, and he still planned to attend the ceremony, as of Friday evening. 

Thei said the group’s Kampong Thom representatives had told him they were stopped from entering the forest on Friday.

Ly Chheang, the Stung Treng coordinator, said she was not sure whether the group of about 130 people meeting in the province would head into the sanctuary on Saturday morning. She said provincial environment department authorities told her they received orders to halt the event from the Environment Ministry.

PLCN held a Buddhist blessing ceremony in the forest last year, but the group canceled the event in 2018 after receiving threats from authorities, according to Licadho.

The Environment Ministry hosted an event in Prey Lang sanctuary last weekend, sending about 500 ministry officials into the forest to join environmental activists for a tree blessing ceremony to promote natural resource protection, the Phnom Penh Post reported this week.

Pheaktra, the spokesman, told VOD that the ministry had been working closely with 19 protected-area communities as well as registered NGOs on the protection of the sanctuary.

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