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As environmental killings surge, forests disappear

Southeast Asia

Between 2002 and 2013, nearly 1,000 environmental defenders were killed in 35 countries. gardnergp under a Creative Commons Licence

Mahatma Ghandi said that ‘what we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another’. Now that reflection is clearer than ever.  

Globally, there has been a surge in deforestation in the first quarter of 2014. Since January, NASA’s Earth Observatory, has detected sharp increases in deforestation across the world – 162 per cent in Bolivia, 150 per cent in Malaysia, 63 per cent in Nigeria and 89 per cent in Cambodia. Forests are disappearing, and where are the community leaders and activists who raised their voices to protest?

Environmental justice group Global Witness recently released a report showing that those who stand up to defend their lands and forests are targeted and killed at a rate of more than one per week. Between 2002 and 2013, nearly 1,000 activists were killed in 35 countries.

Two years ago, Cambodian illegal-logging activist, Chut Wutty, was one of those who lost their lives. Wutty was shot and killed by military police during an investigation into an illegal logging site. But his work has lived on: in Cambodia’s Prey Lang forest, Wutty taught a small army of villagers strategies to defend their natural resources.

Spanning four provinces, the Prey Lang Community Network is a civil-society group that takes direct action against illegal loggers. Patrol teams confiscate and destroy chainsaws and burn timber to prevent loggers or corrupt authorities from making a profit.

Deforestation in Prey Lang is one of the peaks of destruction captured by NASA. On the ground, the story is depressingly familiar. Sawmills have been set up in the centre of an economic land concession, purportedly to process logs cleared from degraded forest to make way for a new rubber plantation.

Three weeks ago, local environmentalist and old friend of Chut Wutty, Marcus Hardtke, made a surprise inspection.

Piles of round logs, processed timber and trucks loaded with wood and machinery fill the company site at this ‘agricultural development’. The concession is at the centre of a full-blown illegal logging operation.

As Marcus arrived, a truck loaded with round logs clumsily rolled into the half-grown rubber trees, an absurd attempt to hide the loot. Satellite images from the last three months show logging roads weaselling out of the concession and into the dense forest in the heart of Prey Lang.

Behind this ill-disguised illegal logging operation are powerful actors. In 2011 I was sitting next to Wutty during a Prey Lang Community Network patrol, investigating the same concession site. A truck of military officers arrived and immediately targeted Wutty. As the soldiers pointed AK47s, community members rushed forward, bare-handed, to fight them off. Hours later, Wutty watched the scene back on my camera, pointing out the district governor and military police chief.

Lately, allegations have surfaced that the illegal logging syndicate in Prey Lang is headed up by the brother and cousin of Hun Sen, Cambodia’s long standing autocrat. Global Witness was the group that first exposed the Cambodian premier’s links to illegal logging operations. After lying low for several years, the family logging cartel has returned to Prey Lang forest.

With the military embroiled in illegal logging since the days of the Khmer Rouge, and Cambodia’s underpaid forest conservation officials accepting bribes, the real work of law enforcement is left to the local communities.

USAID has put almost $20 million into promoting sustainable forestry in Prey Lang and Cambodia’s eastern plains. Yet while millions of dollars are allocated on paper, nothing has reached the patrol teams on the ground.

Development agencies seem afraid to confront the timber cartels and their connections in government. So political change is stagnant, and though the Prey Lang Community Network has the sympathy of many Cambodians, international support is lacking.

Before he died, Chut Wutty predicted that if nothing changed, in five years the forest would be gone.

Two years on that prediction is horrifyingly accurate. In this forgotten corner of the forest, the Prey Lang community is, perhaps, the last bastion of hope.

Fran Lambrick is a director, producer and researcher. She has recently completed a PhD on community forestry in Cambodia.

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