TA BOS, Cambodia June 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Cambodian rosewood had stood for hundreds of years, but its value finally proved too hard to resist and the giant tree came crashing down - inside a protected forest.
It's unclear exactly who was behind the felling - nobody has been charged - but it set off a series of events, which culminated in hundreds of villagers rejecting their community forest in favour of cutting more trees.
The incident underscores the challenge of protecting the country's forests, which researchers say have been rapidly disappearing due to logging and agricultural land concessions granted to companies.
Cambodia has among the highest deforestation rates in the world, according to a study published in the journal Science Advances in 2017.
The Southeast Asian nation lost 1.6 million hectares between 2001 and 2014, including 38 percent of its "intact forest landscape", which the study defined as "a seamless mosaic of forest and naturally treeless ecosystems."
Conservationists have fought for years to convince the government and people in remote areas to check deforestation, and the community forest model has been a key strategy.
Local residents agree to preserve a community forest, although they are allowed to continue to farm areas already under cultivation, as well as harvest timber needed for construction - if they receive permission.
That model is broken, according to Ben Davis, who has worked in conservation in Cambodia since 1992 and set up the community forest near Ta Bos village in the province of Preah Vihear.
Davis has helped non-governmental organisations (NGOs) establish other community forests, which he said had ended up being logged as soon as no one was around to enforce protection.
"Unless there's an NGO that is living there in the forest," he said, trailing off. "The minute they're gone..."
Davis, an American, and his Australian wife, Sharyn, live with their two children in the community forest where they have set up an eco-tourism lodge, and he often accompanies Ministry of Environment forest rangers on patrol.
A year ago, rangers startled some men who had just cut down the ancient rosewood, which Davis said was the biggest in the forest.
Authorities decided to confiscate the tree, but the rainy season delayed them and it lay in the jungle until this past April, said Davis and Pov Samuth, the local commune chief.
After the rangers hauled the rosewood to the village common area, residents protested, demanding that it be turned over to them, Davis and Pov Samuth said.
Davis said villagers recently sold one section of the tree - 1.7 metres long and more than a metre in diameter - for $10,000.
"It's no wonder this thing set off a firestorm," he said. "You can see why the villagers are hell bent on taking the forest over."
About 400 residents demonstrated outside Davis' house in April, and hundreds have applied their thumbprints to a petition demanding his eviction.
"We are not satisfied, because they said the area should be protected for the next generation, but villagers can't go into the forest to do our work," said Rorn Chhang, who added her thumbprint to the petition.
Her sister, Sorum Chhang, said she owned 20 hectares in the forest, which she began clearing in 2001.
"A few years ago, they came and said it belongs to the protected area, so they don't allow me to do anything on my land," said Sorum Chhang, who has no ownership documents.
TIME TO TALK
As the controversy continued, government officials in the capital, Phnom Penh, decided to meet with the villagers to explain the regulations around community forests.
About 300 people crowded into a wooden pagoda in the centre of the village to speak to Lay Piden, deputy chief of law enforcement and governance at the Ministry of Agriculture.
"Nowadays, there are restrictions even to walk into the forest," one man said to nods and murmurs of agreement.
After a heated discussion, Lay Piden said the villagers seemed most interested in figuring out how to keep felling trees, as they had before the community forest was established.
"Now, the officials from the Ministry of Environment prohibit them," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "That's why they come here and get mad."
Meas Nhem, director of the Phnom Tnout Wildlife Sanctuary, where the community forest lies, denied that residents are prevented from entering the protected area.
"We are not strict with the villagers," he said by phone. "We allow them to take yields from the forest, but what we ban is deforesting for farming land and selling to dealers."
DEBT AND DEFORESTATION
Davis said almost the every family in the village has taken out loans, putting up their land as collateral, and they struggle to service the debt.
Pov Samuth, the commune chief, concurred.
"Nearly all villagers take money from the banks," he said. "Some need to cut the trees to construct houses, and some also sell for paying the bank."
Debt-driven deforestation in the Phnom Tnout Wildlife Sanctuary has raised fears among conservation groups.
In April, eight organisations, including the World Wildlife Fund, released a statement warning of "the rapid rate of destruction" and urged authorities to "enforce the rule of law".
Already this month, three villagers have been arrested for cutting down a massive padauk tree, an endangered, luxury hardwood that is carved into furniture and musical instruments.
Davis said the rosewood incident had emboldened residents, as some had gained from the illegal felling.
"They hope to get away with it again," he said.
Reporting by Jared Ferrie; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths;
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