Though the Kampong Speu provincial governor has promised to demarcate the boundaries of the contested Metta forest of Oral district, residents say loggers have continued to clear-cut the vanishing woodland.
Soy Sat, a 71-year-old from neighboring Po Meas village who has been a vocal advocate for preserving the forest, said about three hectares of forest were cleared earlier this week along the edge of the remaining woods. According to Sat, the clearing occurred near a place where Kampong Speu governor Vy Samnang spoke to local villagers during a visit earlier this month.
“The clearing is continued, at the place where his excellency Vei Samnang went for shade under a banyan tree [that] has a lot of Buddha statues, now they have cleared into the desert,” Sat said, adding that he has requested provincial authorities to stop the cutting.
The Metta forest lies within the Phnom Oral Wildlife Sanctuary, but in August last year Prime Minister Hun Sen signed off on a sub-decree to carve out more than 260 hectares of land for distribution to families associated with the military’s armored vehicle unit.
The clear-cutting in the give-away area led to the protest of hundreds of villagers in Trapaing Chor commune who claimed their community had protected the woodlands for more than 20 years.
Activist monk Prum Socheat, who lives at a pagoda in the Metta forest, said the Buddha statues under the banyan tree were destroyed earlier this week. Socheat also said the big trees in the foothills of nearby Phnom Oral, which had been a sanctuary for wildlife, have also been lost due to earlier clearings.
“For me, [I] have seen all the immoral or irrational activities, I don’t know what to do [..] if Khmer cannot understand each other, if they rely on law but don’t know what law is, if they rely on dharma, [but] it’s dark, like living in a dark world, if the morality is downgraded like this,” Socheat lamented.
Provincial governor Samanng said his visit could not prohibit further clearing by people affiliated with the military families.
“I don’t know why, maybe they want the land, why don’t you ask the clearers?” Samnang asked. “ I want to protect [but] if the clearer continues, we have nothing to do with it, uncle [I] is the protector, but the crook is still clearing, what should we do?”
However, the governor said the provincial administration had submitted a letter to the Ministry of Environment requesting a clear boundary for the Metta forest community and the cleared land. Establishing such a boundary is the only solution to the dispute, Samnang said, adding that he hopes to have a response from the ministry by next week.
“Only to point back and forth, the soldiers say this is their land, and the community says it is theirs, unless we have the document from the Environment Ministry so that we could know where the community land and the soldiers’ land is,” the governor said.