I’ve just returned from a few days in Prey Long following a group of locals patrolling for illegal loggers. I have made more than a dozen trips into this forest since 2007 and it’s hard not to become depressed watching this amazing forest disappearing do fast. Settlers continue to nibble away at the edges from every direction, while economic land concessions take massive chunks. Much of the forest in Kompong Thom province has now been cleared although some fairly pristine areas do remain. I should qualify that statement. The most valuable timbers like Rosewood and Beng have already gone from Prey Long and predictably the loggers are moving down the value chain to other species, so it’s hardly pristine. However, the ecosystem is for the most part still intact. What disturbs me is that if Prey Long is allowed to be cleared, it will have a serious impact on water supplies across a significant part of the country.
Anyway, back to the trip. I was following a group of about 30 people, although the size did vary from time to time. We started off driving through the community forest near Sandan before crossing the wasteland that is the CRCK rubber plantation. Almost as soon as we entered the forest we encountered our first trailer full of wood. As it turned out the guy had papers with permission to cut planks for a house, so he was allowed to go on his way. As we continued on it wasn’t long before the first bikes stopped as the driver of a tractor-trailer ran off into the forest. As we approached we saw the trailer had at least 2 cubic meters of luxury wood. This guy wasn’t building a house.
With no driver the group decided to disable the tractor in some fairly innovative ways before continuing on to meet the rest of the team, only stopping to burn some luxury timber we found along the way. We were eventually stopped by a fallen tree blocking the trail, so the group decided to backtrack to a nearby stream and set up camp for the night. This is where I have to question the forethought of some people. You live in a rain forest and the rainy season just started, so you expect rain, right?
Apparently not. Somewhat predictably we had a big thunderstorm and I found myself with 10 people huddled under my tarp. Still, these are not my nominees for this years Darwin awards. That goes to the gentlemen we met the following evening.
The next morning we soon came across a couple of trailers in the process of loading their timber, while what we assume was their boss made off on a motorcycle before he could be caught. A chainsaw was also confiscated, which was then used to cut up the timber making it worthless. The young guys driving were given a short lesson in Cambodian law before being thumb-printed and warned not to return or they would be prosecuted. The Prey Long Community Network (PLCN) guys work very methodically following the law at all times, noting down every detail and also contacting the Forestry Administration to report incidents. I have to say I am always amazed how amicable everyone is during these confrontations. I have been on a few such trips over the years and I have never witnessed anything untoward from any party.
The reason I was on this trip was to record the PLCN using a new phone application provided by the University of Copenhagen/Danmission, which can record various illegal activities. The app is largely picture based making it particularly simple to operate. The rest of the day was spent traveling and we found more cut timber, but the highlight was definitely our second camp. Even as we were setting up our hammocks three tractor-trailers full of luxury timber arrived at the same river crossing.
Faced with 30 people and no way to quickly turn around they didn’t bother running. More thumb-printing and education on the law ensued. As we were talking with the drivers we noticed some people talking very loudly a couple of hundred meters off in the forest. About a dozen of us went to investigate and came across five guys, all very drunk and very obviously loggers. One was particularly drunk and while he could barely stand he was very full of himself. We searched the area but couldn’t find their chainsaws so nothing could be done and we went back to our camp.
These guys knew we were camped close by and they also knew we were looking for their chainsaws, so it came as a compete surprise that they decided to start one of them at 6am. The group simply descended on them as they ran off into the forest. A quick check of the area turned up 2 chainsaws and numerous tools and spare parts, as well as empty containers for well over 100 liters of fuel. All they had to do was wait for us to leave. Absolute morons.
As we were about to leave yet another trailer of illegal timber arrived and was again processed before all the confiscated timber was then burnt. In the end we didn’t get moving before 11am and spent most of the day traveling before coming across four pairs of cows each pulling around a cubic meter of what appeared to be timber for housing. I took the opportunity for a quick dip in the nearby river but it was scant relief against the sweltering heat. It’s seriously hot here in early April and the storm had simply caused the humidity to soar making it close to unbearable at times. The drivers were warned, thumb-printed and educated on the correct process before we continued on.
I wasn’t completely sure what was going on as we came back out into the CRCK rubber plantation. We were not far from Sandan and I thought that was where they were going so I said I’d take the long but much easier route along the laterite road rather than suffer the short cut again (I know it well and it’s just not fun). As it turned out they were planning to stop for the night at their meeting hall in the community forest and I did miss them busting another trailer the next morning. However, as I had the joint pleasure of a cold beer and to my surprise a lunar eclipse to watch from my hammock, it wasn’t such a bad move.
All in all I had fun and got some good footage.