Authorities Threaten to Arrest Activists Monitoring Illegal Logging in Cambodia’s Prey Lang Forest

Lovers of the Environment documented thousands of felled old growth trees over two days in the area.

Authorities Threaten to Arrest Activists Monitoring Illegal Logging in Cambodia’s Prey Lang Forest

Environmental activists patrolling Prey Lang forest in Cambodia’s central plains said Thursday that authorities interfered with their work and even tried to arrest them after they documented a local company conducting extensive illegal logging in the protected area.

A group known as Lovers of the Environment, which is mostly comprised of youth activists, launched a campaign on Wednesday to drive their motorbikes through Prey Lang’s wildlife sanctuary areas of O’Anamai, O’Romany, O’Krak, O’Sgnuot, and Red Mountain over the course of five days to monitor for illegal logging activities.

Heng Sros, one of the group’s campaigners, told RFA’s Khmer Service on Thursday that over the course of just two days he saw “hundreds of people” in the forest illegally cutting down old-growth trees and transporting them to sawmills run by Think-Biotech Co., Ltd. on the outskirts of Prey Lang, where they were processed and sold for around U.S. $225 per cubic meter.

Meanwhile, felled logs lay unprocessed and awaiting transport throughout the areas the group monitored, he said.

But while Lovers of the Environment worked to document the illegal logging, according to Heng Sros, local authorities followed the group throughout the forest closely watching its activities and seemingly working in conjunction with forestry officials to try to arrest its members.

“The authorities not only didn’t stop the illegal loggers, but they tried to stop our activities and attempted to arrest us, even though we are defenders of the environment who have been working hard and sacrificing our lives to prevent Cambodia’s forests from disappearing,” he said.

“They should be ashamed. The authorities must guarantee that no one can cut down the supposedly ‘protected forest’ areas of Prey Lang.”

In two days, he said his group located “more than 2,000 felled old-growth logs” in five different locations that it documented with photos and video—most of which are resin-producing trees that local residents rely on for their livelihood.

“We were looking specifically for giant trees aged hundreds of years old,” he said, adding that hired workers “used 100–200 trucks to transport the logs.”

“I interviewed the workers and they told me that they transport the logs to sell to Think-Biotech Co., Ltd. They said if they didn’t sell the logs to Think-Biotech, the authorities and forestry officials would seize them and they would have to pay a fine.”

Heng Sros suggested that authorities are “receiving bribes” from Think-Biotech to shadow his group and threaten them with arrest.

‘Protect our remaining forests’

Repeated calls by RFA seeking comment on Heng Sros’s claims from Commission of National Prevention and Suppression Against Forest Crime spokesperson Eng Hy and Agriculture Ministry spokesperson Srey Vudh went unanswered Thursday.

However, Ministry of Environment spokesperson Neth Pheaktra told RFA that while it is the right of Lovers of the Environment to carry out their campaign, “the ministry [only] supports a properly registered nongovernmental organization conducting activities to protect natural resources,” suggesting the group should have first asked for permission to enter the forest from local authorities or the Interior Ministry.

Internationally-recognized environmental activist Leng Ouch, who is chairman of local watchdog Cambodian Human Rights Task Force and a member of the campaign against forest crimes, told RFA that members of his group are willing to lay down their lives to protect the country’s forests, which he called “the natural heritage of our ancestors.”

He appealed to all government authorities and members of the armed forces to protect the country’s remaining forests. 

“We are not involved in any struggle or revolution for power—all we really want is to preserve and protect our remaining forests,” he said.

“We aren’t doing this for our own interests, but the [authorities] are taking action against us.”

Think-Biotech did not respond to repeated calls for comment on Thursday.

An illegally felled old-growth tree in Prey Lang forest, April 22, 2020. Credit: Lovers of the Environment
An illegally felled old-growth tree in Prey Lang forest, April 22, 2020. Credit: Lovers of the Environment
Forest under attack

Prey Lang has been ravaged by deforestation caused by illegal logging, with much of the illicit timber smuggled outside the country. In a report released last year, the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) found that the area lost 56 square kilometers (22 square miles) of forest in 2017 alone.

In late February, masked, armed rangers deployed by the Ministry of Environment blocked hundreds of community members, monks, and environmental activists from entering parts of Prey Lang to join an annual tree-blessing ceremony organized by the PLCN to promote conservation efforts against deforestation.

Last week, Ida Theilade of the University of Copenhagen’s Faculty of Science, issued a statement saying that documentation compiled by PLCN that corresponds with satellite imagery from the EU Joint Research Centre and Global Land Analysis & Discovery (GLAD) - University of Maryland showed “increased illegal logging within the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary” in recent months.

Based on weekly satellite imagery at a 30-meter (100-foot) resolution, GLAD issued approximately 1,000 forest loss alerts for Prey Lang per week since the beginning of 2020, Theilade said, noting that during one week at the end of February, when the Ministry of Environment controlled access to the forest, “the number of forest loss alerts spiked to more than 11,000.”

“We are concerned that the PLCN tree blessing ceremony was banned due to government sanctioned illegal logging of protected resin trees in the area,” the statement said.

“PLCN is still banned from entering the forest and is currently unable to conduct patrols and collect data on forest crimes, biodiversity and climate change. PLCN members can only watch as illegal loggers freely enter Prey Lang and convoys of trucks transport timber out of the forest.”

Anniversary of slaying

Also on Thursday, Cheuy Oudom Reaksmey, the son of slain Cambodian environmental activist Chut Wutty, told RFA his family plans to hold an event in Prey Lang forest on Sunday to commemorate the 8th anniversary of his father’s still-unsolved murder.

Shot to death on April 26, 2012 while investigating illegal logging in Koh Kong’s Mondul Seima district, Chut Wutty had been active in organizing communities to protect Cambodian forests against land grabs. He had also campaigned against the government’s granting of land concessions in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

During the commemoration ceremony, Chut Wutty’s family will demand justice from authorities as his killers have yet to be brought to justice, Cheuy Oudom Reaksmey said. They also plan to launch a social media campaign to remind the public about the activist’s work and sacrifice.

An official investigation into Chut Wutty’s death was closed in October 2013 when a court in Koh Kong province abruptly ended its proceedings, prompting Cheuy Oudom Reaksmey to vow at the time to continue to fight for justice in his father’s case.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sokry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

Source : Radio Free Asia More   

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US Urges Southeast Asian Nations to Close Wildlife Wet Markets

Illegal wildlife sold in wet markets linked to infectious “zoonotic diseases,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says.

US Urges Southeast Asian Nations to Close Wildlife Wet Markets

The United States appealed to Southeast Asian countries Thursday to shut down all wet markets illegally selling wildlife, saying such trading places had been linked to animal disease communicable to humans, as Washington announced it had released $35.3 million in regional aid to fight the coronavirus outbreak.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the appeal after calling on China to permanently close its wildlife wet markets, including those in its central city of Wuhan, where health experts say COVID-19 might have originated last year before the virus infected more than 2.6 million people worldwide and killed more than 186,000 others.

“Given the strong link between illegal wildlife sold in wet markets and zoonotic diseases, the United States has called on the People’s Republic of China to permanently close its wildlife wet markets and all markets that sell illegal wildlife,” Pompeo said in a statement, referring to a major complex of stalls that sell live fish and where wild animals are often butchered right on the premises.

“I call on all ASEAN governments to do the same,” he said.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang rejected Pompeo’s allegations, telling reporters in Beijing that “there's no ‘wildlife wet market’ in China.”

“Instead, we have farmers' markets and seafood markets where meat, fish, vegetables, seafood and other fresh produce are sold. A very small number of them sell live poultry,” he said. “Such markets are commonplace existence not only in China, but also in many Southeast Asian countries and a lot of developing countries.”

US aid to ASEAN

Pompeo came out with the statement hours before taking part in an online meeting on Thursday (Jakarta time) with foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Pompeo said Washington had released more than $35.3 million in emergency health funding to help the regional bloc combat the virus. That amount was on top of the $3.5 billion in public health assistance that the United States had provided countries in the region during the past 20 years, he said.

Southeast Asia has recorded some of the highest number of COVID-19 infections, with the prosperous city-state Singapore reporting 1,037 in new cases on Thursday, taking its cumulative cases to 11,178.

At the online meeting with his ASEAN counterparts on Thursday, Pompeo said the United States had released $3 million for Indonesia, which has so far confirmed 7,775 cases with 647 fatalities.

During the video-conference, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi urged countries to put aside political differences to forge international cooperation to fight the coronavirus.

“It is important that countries work together to overcome the shortcomings that are still faced by many, especially in terms of medical and protective equipment and medicines,” Retno said.

Pompeo also told his Southeast Asian counterparts that Beijing was taking advantage of the world’s preoccupation with the coronavirus pandemic to reinforce its aggressive claims in the South China Sea.

“Even as we fight the outbreak, we must remember that the long-term threats to our shared security have not disappeared,” he said. “In fact, they’ve become more prominent.”

The video-conference participants mostly “reaffirmed their collective resolve to prioritize strengthening their public health systems” and “cooperating in research and development of vaccine and therapeutics,” according to Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.

But Locsin said in a statement that his counterparts also expressed concerns “over recent developments in the South China Sea that increased tensions at a time when all efforts and resources are focused on battling the pandemic.”

“They recognized the importance of contributing to the maintenance of peace, security, stability, and the rule of law in the region amid the fight against COVID-19,” he said. “This is essential at a time when countries must not only navigate the COVID crisis, but must also prepare a post-pandemic plan of social and economic recovery.”

The Philippines has recorded 6,981 COVID-19 infections with 462 deaths as of Thursday.

US thanks Malaysia for sending gloves

During the meeting, Pompeo thanked Malaysia, as well as Cambodia and Vietnam, for their support in the pandemic fight and for helping in the continued flow of vital medical supplies into the United States.

Malaysia facilitated the speedy delivery of over 1.3 million kilograms of gloves for U.S. health care workers, he said.

Kuala Lumpur extended its COVID-19 travel curbs on Thursday by two weeks, although Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said more business sectors may be allowed to resume operations.

Malaysia, which has so far reported a cumulative tally of 5,603 coronavirus cases with 95 deaths, started a partial lockdown on March 18. The extension of its so-called movement control order would last until May 12, Muhyiddin said.

“Should the number of COVID-19 cases show significant reduction, the government may ease curbs on movement in stages in several sectors including the social sector,” Muhyiddin said in a televised address.

Bangladesh, which has reported 4,186 coronavirus infections as of Thursday, with a death toll of 127, has also announced a similar extension of movement curbs until May 5.

Pompeo announces US-ASEAN health initiative

Pompeo also announced during the video conference the formation of the U.S.-ASEAN Health Futures initiative, which would be used as a platform to enhance efforts in health security through research.

He said the United States was making an additional pledge of about $270 million to assist the most at-risk countries in fighting the coronavirus. He did not elaborate.

Washington was currently involved in training more than 70,000 pharmacists across Indonesia “so they can provide good advice and referrals” for coronavirus patients, he added.

A day earlier, during a news conference, Pompeo also criticized China for not sharing “all of the information it had” about the coronavirus.

“Instead, it covered up how dangerous the disease is. It didn’t report sustained human-to-human transmission for a month until it was in every province inside of China,” he said, emphasizing that Beijing’s refusal to share samples of the virus from inside of the country with the outside world made it “impossible to track the disease’s evolution.”

Geng Shuang, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, described Pompeo’s statements as “lies that discredit China's anti-epidemic efforts.”

“Facts speak louder than words,” he said. “China has taken timely, swift and efficient epidemic prevention and control measures in an open, transparent and responsible manner.”

Globally, almost 2.7 million infections from the coronavirus have been recorded while the death toll stood at more than 188,400 as of Thursday, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

Source : Radio Free Asia More   

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