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Murder won't stop the fight for Cambodia's forests

Chut Wutty, a dedicated Cambodian activist, was shot dead at an illegal logging site by military police, on 26 April. At the time Wutty was driving with two journalists whose eyewitness accounts relate that he was physically and verbally abused, then shot while trying to drive away, and left to die.

The event reveals the brutal power of logging syndicates, which are looting the country’s natural wealth, and employing the military to silence their opponents.

Wutty was Cambodia’s foremost environmental activist, and director of the Natural Resources Protection Group. He was particularly active in the Cardamom Mountains and in Prey Lang Forest. He played a major role supporting the Prey Lang network, a grassroots forest protection movement that spans four provinces.

Wutty argued that local authorities and officials offered little support in the fight against illegal logging.

‘Civil servants, in their uniform, have not performed their role according to their mandate,’ he explained. ‘The only role they play is facilitating business deals to make personal profit. With this they earn from more than one source. First, they get their salary from government, second, they get direct income from selling timber, and third, they make money facilitating business deals.’

Deforestation in Cambodia is driven by a juggernaut of vested interests. Collusion between concessionaires, illegal loggers and officials creates a powerful front. Cambodia is being carved up into land concessions: rubber, mining and dams are major causes of large-scale deforestation.

‘I understand that wealth is important and I want to be wealthy as well,’ said Wutty. ‘But I also want to see people live with freedom, to be able to maintain their culture, their traditions, to be able to pursue their own life style.’

Illegal logging inside and outside concession areas costs the Royal Government of Cambodia an estimated 50 per cent of potential tax revenue. It often costs local people their income: when more valuable timbers have been exhausted loggers turn to dipterocarps – resin trees – which are sustainably harvested by local people under traditional tenure systems.

Despite this, the Cambodian government aims to expand rubber plantations to 400,000 hectares by 2020. Forest dependent communities face losing their land, trees, and independence, becoming poorly paid labourers in plantations owned by the wealthy.

The worldwide outcry in response to Wutty’s killing has drawn attention to this widespread dispossession. On 7 May, the Cambodian government suspended allocation of new land concessions. This move is to be applauded. As the attention of the world’s media moves on from the horror of Wutty’s death it is essential that international pressure to reform the natural resource sector in Cambodia remains firm.

UN special rapporteur for Cambodia, Surya Subedi, stated on Monday that, while in some cases authorities have held companies to account for their actions, in many cases there remains impunity for violations committed by companies. This must not be the case with Wutty’s murder.

Wutty was one of Cambodia’s most vociferous activists and was perfectly aware of the risks he was taking. His courageous cry to stop the destruction of Cambodia's forests must not be silenced. The battle to save Prey Lang continues as does the fight against illegal deforestation in Cambodia generally –  we have been passed the baton.

Fran Lambrick’s forthcoming film Rubbernaut tells the story of families who live in Prey Lang forest, showing the impact of the forest's conversion to rubber on their way of life.

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