SAMBOR DISTRICT, Kratie — Khun Reu has been unable to sleep well for three months. Every night, he says, 20-30 large trucks transporting timber have rumbled past his house along a dusty path in Kampong Cham commune.
The Komphluk villager, 26, sees the trucks approaching his house every night and disappearing into the darkness. It’s hard to see in the dark, but he can see enough to tell they are heavy loads of timber, he says.
“I am really angry but I cannot do anything to stop the cutting of the forest,” Reu said. “I just want to protect the forest and protect the resin trees.”
Reu’s grandfather, Heng Run, and his parents have community forest rights to tap around 1,000 resin trees in different parts of the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, he says. So Reu decided four days ago to accompany his grandfather and eight others into the protected area to put up banners saying, “Please help preserve our forests,” with images of crossed-out chainsaws.
The group of 10 people also included noted environmentalists Ouch Leng, Heng Sros and Men Mat and Torng Cheang.
But after finishing their lunch on Friday, Environment Ministry rangers detained them and confiscated their equipment from within the Prey Lang protected forest, Reu said.
Five of the 10 people, including Reu, were released on Friday. The five others — Leng, Sros, Mat, Cheang and Heng Run — were sent to the Kratie city district police station and questioned over the weekend before being released Monday morning.
On Saturday, the five were questioned at the provincial environment department office in Kratie, where gates and doors were kept closed and all the curtains were drawn. Leng occasionally peeked outside the office’s front doors, flashing a thumbs up, but rangers quickly shut the door.
After questioning, Chhay Duong Savuth, the department’s director, refused to answer why the five activists had been detained or what they were questioned about.
When pursued by reporters, Doung Savuth said he “had to go exercise”, and walked away to Kratie town’s riverside dressed in red shorts, a blue T-shirt and sneakers.
Amnesty International’s Emerlynne Gil issued a statement that day saying the arrests were “an outrage.”
“They must be released without charge immediately, and any Ministry of Environment officials responsible for their detention should be investigated and held accountable for this arbitrary harassment,” Gil said.
But Environment Ministry spokesperson Neth Pheaktra accused Leng and his group of taking pictures in a protected area without permission from the ministry.
“In particular, they want to create a defamatory image of Cambodia to seek financial support and mobilize funds for their group,” he said.
On Sunday, the five were taken to the Kratie Provincial Court, where Leng was seen chatting with friends and supporters, as rights monitors kept watch on the court’s handling of the case.
They signed an agreement stating they would stop taking photos and conducting activities in the protected forest without prior permission.
The five activists said they did not want to comment about their detention till they were released.
Naly Pilorge, director of local rights group Licadho, said the NGO’s lawyers, who are representing the activists, were told that the five activists needed to sign another contract on Monday in order to be released.
“Right now, though, we’re not sure why, or what the content of the contract will say,” she said.
“They deserve better than being held in a police station and interrogated days on end without a shred of evidence of any crimes committed by them,” she said.
The Environment Ministry issued another statement Sunday evening calling the five activists a “perpetrator group” that had illegally entered Prey Lang and conducted activities to benefit themselves.
“This shows clearly about the malicious intent of some groups who work under the label of environmentalists and forest activists by using dirty methods to gain benefits for their party and serve their immoral agenda,” the ministry statement said.
On Monday morning, rights group Adhoc’s spokesperson Soeng Senkaruna said the activists were allowed to leave after signing a second, yet-undisclosed agreement.
Leng, and three others, were also arrested last year while documenting illegal logging next to the Think Biotech concession. The company was granted a 34,000-hectare economic land concession for a timber plantation, which borders the Prey Lang forest and primarily plants acacia trees. It has been long accused of illegally logging inside the Prey Lang forest — the economic land concession is neatly nestled between the Mekong river and protected area.
Last year, Leng was also made to sign an agreement to suspend forest patrols and get written authorization before conducting any monitoring activities.
“The prosecutor prepared the paperwork to satisfy the company and do whatever it takes to stop my group,” Leng said following his release at the time.
The court also alleged that Leng’s organization, the Cambodia Human Rights Task Force, was not registered at the Interior Ministry, an allegation the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize recipient rejected.
Back at Komphluk village, the Think Biotech plantation is no more than 5 km north of the village. A double layer of security checkpoints blocks any access for villagers.
In the distance, there are acacia trees blurring in the horizon as small fires can be seen burning in different parts of the plantation.
Reu said all had gone quiet since the Friday arrests. The traffic of timber trucks had stopped, and so had local farmers carrying smaller loads of wood out of the protected forest, he said.
Reu alleged that villagers had been asked to cut trees from within Prey Lang forest for “the company.”
“They cut outside the company’s territory,” he said. “They cannot sell this cut wood to other companies; only to this company.”
Two villagers in Sambor district spoke about the ongoing deforestation but requested that reporters only use their first names and not identify their village for fear of repercussions.
Mi leans against his motorcycle, having just bought some fish from the local grocery store. He said it was not a secret that “the company” sends brokers to buy timber from villagers.
The father of two children was approached by a broker a few years ago to cut trees from within the Prey Lang forest but had refused the offer, he said. Villagers entered the forest in the evening and returned at night, Mi said, and were asked to fell first-grade ch’krom and chlich timber, and sometimes the second-grade srolao.
As he was speaking to reporters, Mi pointed to a tractor-driven cart, also called koyun, and said the two villagers had cut timber from the forest in the past.
He said villagers could get up to $100 as fees for every cubic meter of timber felled. Mi said that previously one could go to Prey Lang and cut 10 to 50 logs a day, but that it was getting harder to find high-grade wood near the village.
“We don’t know what to do as they are a big [company] and we are just normal people,” Mi said. “I want to say that whatever they do, we pretend we don’t know and don’t hear anything.”
People needed money in the district and knew that the company would find the labor some way or the other.
“If we don’t do it, others will do it. They come from far away to do this.”
Sitting nearby, Thy said he too had been asked to cut wood for the company but said it would take financial distress to get him to cut down the forest.
“We can do it for them only if we have a tractor, machines, and other things. As we have nothing, how can we do it? If [I have] no choice, then I will do it.”