Cambodian authorities’ ban on community forest patrols didn’t stop an environmental group from returning to Prey Preah Roka Wildlife Sanctuary over the weekend, where they found hundreds of felled resin trees that they say are vital for the local community.
The sanctuary, a 90,000-hectare protected area in Preah Vihear province, lost more than 600 hectares of tree cover in 2020, according to Global Forest Watch data. However, independent patrols of protected areas by environmentalists have been banned since early 2020, leading to reports of rising deforestation.
San Mala, a former Cambodian Youth Network official who now works for the Forest Defenders Project, which he says is part of another group he would not name due to safety concerns, nevertheless made a three-day trip into the wildlife sanctuary from Friday to Sunday, his second visit this year and the first since February.
He found increasing deforestation as the group walked 27 km inside the forest, finding more than 260 resin trees and 367 other trees cut down, Mala said. Some of them were found cut into planks.
“I saw the cases seemed to have doubled compared to the last patrol” five months ago, Mala said. The government has repeatedly argued that any deforestation in the country is only small-scale, claiming that the country’s large-scale timber trafficking trade has been stamped out.
“It is very sad for environmentalists like us and for the community too,” Mala said.
He said he had not asked for permission to patrol as he did not believe it was necessary for a small group of six people.
Soth Savun, a local resident who leads community forest patrols, said patrolling had become rare since authorities tightened restrictions.
However, he had seen wood being taken out of the forests and felt the need to conduct patrols. When authorities find them patrolling, the community members have only been warned and no further actions have been against them, Savun said.
The local community was finding it increasingly difficult to get resin from the forest, he added.
“I used to get resin trees and it helped the people, but now it is gone. They’ve cut down my resin trees,” Savun said. “Some still have resin trees, some don’t have any.”
Preah Vihear provincial environmental department director Sok Chansocheat declined to comment. Environment Ministry spokesman Neth Pheaktra could not be reached on Tuesday.