Ex-Environment Minister Says Deforestation Exaggerated

Former Environment Minister Mok Mareth on Tuesday accused the media of having “twisted the truth” in reporting on illegal logging in Ratanakkiri province, where rights groups and independent forestry monitors say the natural environment is being pillaged and ethnic minority communities impoverished by illegal loggers and agro-industry companies. In a letter dated Tuesday, Mr. Mareth, a CPP member of parliament who currently chairs the National Assembly’s Third Commission on Environment and Water Resources, said recent media coverage of illegal logging in the northeast had also “twisted public opinion, especially the youth, about the government’s success in encouraging conservation and investment on the fringes of conservation zones for the benefit of the nation and the people.” … Earlier this month, local officials in Ratanakkiri’s Lumphat district found thousands of pieces of luxury-grade timber stockpiled at a sawmill on a land concession owned by Daun Penh Agrico Co. Ltd. District and commune officials said they were powerless to stop such logging, which they alleged was conducted outside the company’s official 8,825-hectare economic land concession in the Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary. Ratanakkiri provincial governor Pao Ham Phan explained the logging, saying that the company had been given a second, “unofficial” concession in another location in the sanctuary. … In his letter Tuesday, Mr. Mareth, whose former ministry is responsible for authorizing land concessions inside conservation zones, such as in Lumphat, argued that the government is protecting the country’s forests and simultaneously encouraging economic growth. … However, he argued that companies operating inside another conservation zone, Ratanakkiri’s 332,500-hectare Virachey National Park, were doing little harm to the natural environment. Land concession firms “just remove the scattered remaining trees” from their concessions and “clear the area for agri-industry…under strict management and monitoring of the park rangers and local authorities.” The province’s indigenous communities benefit directly from such companies, he claimed. “Indeed, the minority groups get job[s] as workers and technicians from the development investment which improve[s] their family income which contributes to [a] reduction of population movement from the country to other countries for job[s],” he wrote. Forest monitors and those working with indigenous communities Tuesday rejected the minister’s rosy appraisal of the situation in Ratanakkiri. …

Ben Woods and Aun Pheap