Soldiers’ Forest Clearing Approaches Nature-Loving Monk’s Pagoda

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Loggers cutting down protected forest in Kampong Speu’s Metta forest, edging closer to a pagoda with an environmentally-conscious monk. (Prom Thomacheat)

Monks and villagers say that a group of people purportedly hired by the military to cut down Kampong Speu’s Metta forest are continuing to destroy a densely forested area full of wildlife, and are now only about 200 meters from a pagoda inhabited by a nature-protecting monk.

The area west of the pagoda had gibbons, small monkeys and peacocks, and its deforestation had left the animals homeless, lacking food and crying every day, the monk claimed on Wednesday.

Prom Thomacheat, who lives in the forest pagoda, alleged that people hired by Brigade 70 were cutting down trees and taking control there, reaching about 200 meters west of the pagoda. He said the loggers were cutting down trees near a hut being built for Vipassana meditation.

The clearing activity was protected by armed guards, he added.

“No one dares to go there anymore because it is already occupied,” he said.

Thomacheat expressed concern for wild animals that he claimed had no place to hide and cried day and night. Due to the lack of shelter, wild animals came to live in the pagoda because they had nothing to eat, he said, adding that he wondered why people wanted to destroy nature.

“Animals without shelter, without food, now cry at night at the pagoda,” he said.

Khorn Sarith, head of a local community of residents trying to protect the forest, said trees were being lost every day. Community members have said that they have been protecting the forest for decades, but the government last year granted more than 200 hectares to military families — a surprise decision that led to residents’ protests.

“They cut down trees, big and small, they cut it down every day,” Sarith said. “I did not dare to go in there because they were always threatening to shoot.”

Another resident, Lok Sokly, also said he did not know how many people were stationed there cutting trees and protecting the workers due to threats of gunfire.

Trapaing Chor commune chief Tep Nem, in Oral district, said the soldiers were only clearing land they had received from the government, which he said was adjacent to the pagoda.

“Soldiers did not take the monk’s land — they clear on their own land,” Nem said. The commune chief also claimed that the soldiers had never threatened or used violence against people.The sub-decree from August last year handed 262 hectares of forest to military families. Rights group Licadho says the land is part of the Phnom Oral Wildlife Sanctuary and has traditionally been used by about 253 families.

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