By Matt Blomberg
PHNOM PENH, May 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — A Cambodian conservation group has warned that logging in the protected Prey Lang Forest has ramped up during the coronavirus pandemic, vowing it would continue to monitor the destruction despite government threats of legal action to stop that work.
Members of the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) told the Thomson Reuters Foundation officials were allowing timber to be laundered through agri-business projects bordering the forest, one of Southeast Asia's last lowland evergreen woodlands.
Neth Pheaktra, an environment ministry spokesman, said only "very small-scale illegal logging by local people" had taken place in Prey Lang, and authorities were working to stop it.
He added that PLCN activists were flouting the law by tracking deforestation without government permission.
Cambodia has been beset by disputes over land ownership and forest destruction since the Maoist Khmer Rouge regime destroyed all property records in the 1970s.
In the early 2000s, the government ushered in a development plan that saw more than 10% of the nation's territory turned over to agri-business ventures — mostly foreign-owned rubber plantations — on long-term leases, some inside protected areas.
But Prime Minister Hun Sen suspended the program in 2012, amid widespread reports of forced evictions and environmental devastation.
Cambodia lost a quarter of its total tree cover between 2001 and 2018, among the highest deforestation rates in the world, according to data collated by international monitoring service Global Forest Watch (GFW).
London-based watchdog Global Witness has produced reports showing how politically connected Cambodian tycoons use concessions and military personnel to strip valuable wood from protected forests to feed thriving markets in China and Vietnam.
Almost half a million cubic metres of wood was smuggled across Cambodia's eastern border to Vietnam from 2016 to 2018, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency, another London-based advocacy group.
"It's a similar model in Prey Lang," said Ouch Leng, a PLCN member and winner of the 2016 Goldman Prize for his work exposing corruption and illegal logging.
"Now, with coronavirus, the destruction has increased massively," he added, citing the recent discovery of new trails leading from a government-leased concession into the forest.
Cambodia has reported only about 120 cases of COVID-19 and zero deaths, according to a Reuters tally, but its economy has taken a hit from the global drop in tourism and clothing sales.
Prey Lang — home to dozens of threatened plant and animal species — lost 10% of its forest cover between 2001 and 2018, according to GFW data, and has become Cambodia's latest battleground for environmental defenders.
Established in 2000, the PLCN has a core of about a dozen full-time activists across the four provinces spanned by the 432,000-hectare forest, and about 600 "volunteer" members.
Patrollers — many from Indigenous groups that live in and around the forest — use GPS technology and a purpose-built smartphone app to log tree stumps, new roads, and logging camps.
Their data is paired with publicly available satellite imagery — that has shown deforestation, timber stockpiles and sawmills — and is published periodically with researchers from the University of Copenhagen.
The environment ministry last month ramped up what the Cambodian Center for Human Rights charity called "harassment" of PLCN activists, days after the network published an open letter from one of the university researchers.
The letter contained data from GFW that showed a huge spike in deforestation coinciding with the government taking control of the forest and banning the PLCN from patrolling in February.
PLCN member Hoeun Sopheap said the government had imposed restrictions on the group's activities because "our reporting is very specific, showing in detail what is happening".
"The government should thank us for doing this work, but instead they do the opposite — reject us and issue threats," he said.
He said the "local people" the ministry accuses of logging in Prey Lang were paid to do the "dirty work" of tycoons who own nearby concessions.
"Locals know the forest will disappear anyway, so they decide to make some money while they can," Sopheap said.
Conservation can be perilous work in Cambodia, with those engaging in forest protection often falling foul of the law — and finding themselves in danger even if they do not.
In 2018, for example, three patrollers — a government ranger, a military police officer and a conservationist — were ambushed and murdered by Cambodian soldiers after raiding a Vietnamese logging camp inside the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary.
In 2012, Cambodia's best-known forest defender, Chut Wutty, was shot dead by military police while on a mission with journalists in the Cardamom Mountains.
Chak Sopheap, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said PLCN members had been "targeted" by the government in recent months despite their "peaceful ... and legitimate pursuit to protect the environment."
Four — including Leng, the Goldman Prize winner — were arrested and detained for two nights while on patrol in March.
Sopheap questioned the basis of the government's argument that using satellite data to track deforestation may be illegal.
Crystal Davis, director of Global Forest Watch, said Cambodia was not the first country that had attempted to censure or discredit GFW data, declining to share details of the others.
"We believe that transparency of forest monitoring data is essential to combating illegal deforestation, and that civil society have an important role to play in this effort," she added in emailed comments.
(Reporting by Matt Blomberg; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)