Pagoda Residents Dejected as Phnom Tamao Clearings Reach Their Doorstep

An excavator knocks down trees close to the road bordering Phnom Tamao forest in Takeo province on August 5, 2022. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)
An excavator knocks down trees close to a road bordering Phnom Tamao forest in Takeo province on August 5, 2022. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)

Chhim Sokha came to Phnom Tamao pagoda on Friday because he had to see if the social media posts he was seeing on Facebook were true. His Facebook account had been flooded with chatter about the razing of Phnom Tamao forest. Even nearby Trapeang Leuk village, where Sokha lived, was abuzz about the rapid deforestation in the area. 

Sokha, 35, drove to the pagoda grounds Friday morning, climbed the metal stairs up to a seated Buddha statue on top of a giant boulder, and looked out at the forest. 

“Destroying the forest like this, where can the animals escape?” he asked, staring out at the fast-disappearing tree cover. “Where can they live?” 

Sokha visits the pagoda frequently to make offerings of rice and said the pagoda was special because the monks fed the wild boar and deer from the forest.

For the last week, excavators have been rapidly cutting through Phnom Tamao forest, which has been privatized to influential tycoons Khun Sea and Leng Navatra. Satellite imagery and drone photos by VOD show the forest intact on July 29. But in the last seven days, teams of people have cleared trees at a rapid pace, leaving empty gashes in the once thick forest.

An estimated 130 hectares were razed between July 29 and August 3 in the northeast corner of the forest. The Sea allotment, according to government documents, runs diagonally across the forest from west to east, whereas Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center is located in the southwest corner. Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon told VOD over the weekend that around 1,500 hectares of the forest have been privatized, much of it to Navatra.

When reporters visited the Phnom Tamao pagoda on Friday, they saw at least four excavators cutting trees, and several motorists carting felled trees from the worksite on their motorbikes. 

Chhim Sokha looks for patches of clearing in the Phnom Tamao forest from the pagoda in Takeo province on August 5, 2022. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)
Chhim Sokha looks at patches of clearings in the Phnom Tamao forest from the pagoda in Takeo province on August 5, 2022. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)
Two artisans fill sand into molds to redecorate Phnom Tamao pagoda in Takeo province on August 5, 2022. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)
Two artisans fill sand into molds to redecorate Phnom Tamao pagoda in Takeo province on August 5, 2022. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)

Sokha said the felled trees reminded him of his grandfather, who once worked as a local forest ranger and would come to guard the forest in the past. 

“I didn’t expect this could happen. Even before when the people took a knife [to the trees] and the forestry [officials] would stop them,” he said. “But now they even brought the excavator to destroy it. It is sad.”

Sot Phally, the chief monk at the pagoda, said that he has been threatened after appearing in a video by VOD Khmer, which has more than 23,000 shares on Facebook since its publication on Wednesday.

Phally wouldn’t say who threatened him but claimed he heard rumblings that a high-ranking official wanted him to stay silent. Phally came to the pagoda three years ago, and he’s the only monk serving there currently.

“This is scary because I stay alone at night in the pagoda,” Phally said.

Phally said he had seen support for the forest online, but he remained unsure what could be done to protect the area. 

Nick Marx, a director at Wildlife Alliance which runs the rescue center, said he met a government official this week about the clearings but would not comment further. He previously called the razing of the forest a “betrayal” by the agency. 

Keo Omaliss, director general of the Forestry Administration, did not answer the phone. 

The Forestry Administration on Thursday released a statement claiming that the areas had sandy soil which was not good for forest growth. So the government decided to give the land to a satellite city development project that would be close to the new Techo Takhmao International Airport and a nearby resort.

The statement added that no rare wildlife resided in the forest and that wild pigs had destroyed people’s crops. 

Sokha, the resident of Kandoeng commune, which covers part of the forest, said his home had never been bothered by wild pigs. 

Drone footage of Phnom Tamao forest on August 5, 2022. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)

Prak Kimyeu has spent about one year at Phnom Tamao pagoda, enough time to get to know the groups of wild pigs that would enter the temple grounds and accept food from residents every evening. But she noticed that there were fewer in recent weeks: before she would see 12 groups of wild pigs, and now only two families coming to the pagoda. 

Kimyeu said she came to the pagoda from Kampong Thom province for spiritual comfort and had heard the sounds of deforestation activity in the area.

“The sound of clearing doesn’t bother me. I don’t keep it in mind,” she said. “But I pity all the animals. They also want to live like us too.”

The golden artwork on the side of Phnom Tamao pagoda depicting the Buddha under a tree, in Takeo province on August 5, 2022. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)
The golden artwork on the side of Phnom Tamao pagoda depicting the Buddha under a tree, in Takeo province on August 5, 2022. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)

The chief monk, Phally, said he was drawn to this pagoda because of its location inside the forest, saying he has always tried to stay at pagodas enveloped by nature. He said Buddhism has a strong link to nature because the Buddha gained enlightenment under a tree.

As the destruction loomed closer to the pagoda, Phally said he felt disconnected from his home. 

“It looked fresh and attractive and beautiful in the forest, but now it looks like this. I feel exhausted.”

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