Cambodia's Amazon under threat
The sounds of birds chirping filter down through the forest canopy as the 200 members of Prey Lang Network walk deep into Cambodia’s most precious rainforest.
The group, dedicated to stopping illegal logging, have set out on foot from the city of Kam Pong Thmor to the Prey Lang Forest, arguably Cambodia’s Amazon, a remote 200,000 hectares of virgin timber. Five hours in, they discover newly built roads and illegally logged timber.
“Since 2010 we have seized and destroyed many machines that we have found in our Prey Lang Forest and even around this area we also destroyed many,” said team head Cheang Vuthy as he stopped to survey the damage. Home to the indigenous Kouy people, “Prey Lang” means “our forest”.
Last year, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen approved a 9,000-hectare rubber plantation in the forest despite its status as a protected area. The government says the deal will boost local welfare, but a recent investigation has revealed the extent of illegal logging in the forest to make way for the rubber plantation.
“When we see the tools used for cutting logs we must destroy them in this area after we take pictures as evidence,” Vuthy said as the team set about documenting the evidence of the illegal logging during their second investigation.
Ultimately the team and the villagers burned 40 cubic meters of timber found in the forest – a move they say is their only choice.
“It is the only action we can do to crack down on the activities of illegal loggers,” explained Chhut Vuthy, the president of Cambodia’s Natural Resources Conservation Group.
More than 200,000 people, including the indigenous Kouy people, depend on the forest for their livelihood. Also a vital source of water for Cambodia’s rice-growing region, the forest is rapidly being destroyed. It is a grim story told across Cambodia, where an estimated 1.4 million hectares of forest have been destroyed over the past two decades, lost to illegal logging, charcoal and firewood gathering and clearing for agriculture.
“Our investigation shows only 25 percent of the forest is left,” said Chhut Vuthy of the country’s only virgin forest. “We want the government to prevent more destruction from the rubber plant company.”
Following initial investigations by environmental groups, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a sub-decree to protect 480,000 hectares of the forest. The decision was celebrated, but Prey Lang activists remain skeptical because the government is yet to release the new map and plans for rubber plantations have not been halted.
The rubber plantations inside the forest are part of a trade promotion plan approved by the prime ministers of Cambodia and Vietnam in 2011.
Chheam Yeap, a senior official from the Cambodian People’s Party, defended the trade initiative.
“In this case, it’s only a few people from Phnom Penh and around here who have rejected the policy,” he said. “The state has a duty to protect the farmers and increase the quality of life of the indigenous people here.”
Yet inside the thick jungle, two companies that hold concessions in the forest are believed to be logging illegally. They are also giving out money to local villagers for what they call “local development”, claimed Uth Som On, the deputy governor of San Dan district.
“My authorities do not support illegal loggers cutting down our trees in Prey Lang and we forbid everyone from receiving bribes from illegal businessmen,” he said. “But we only have small number of forces and we cannot protect the whole forest.”
Chim Kha, one of the illegal loggers caught by local villagers, refused to reveal the identity of his employer, but says it’s someone powerful from the government.
“We are just employers, we get paid for cutting logs,” Kha said. “We earn money, about US$15 dollars, for cutting big logs and we were in the forest for 15 days.”
The Prey Lang Network is now collecting further evidence of illegal logging in the forest. Over the next two months the activists are planning to file a legal complaint together with the evidence they have identified.
Ros Lach, 60, chief of the Kouy indigenous network, says the forest is part of the Kouy’s history.
“We have lived here in the forest for many years and we never destroyed it. Our parents and grandparents always kept it intact as a symbol of our spirit,” Lach said. “We get so much from the forest, but now we are worried so much about its future.”
(This article was first broadcast on Asia Calling, a regional current affairs radio program produced by Indonesia’s independent radio news agency KBR68H. You can find more stories from Asia Calling at www.asiacalling.org.)