Forest defenders under fire in Cambodia

Authorities in charge of protecting the massive Prey Lang forest in Northern Cambodia are intent on harassing environmental activists rather than nabbing illegal loggers. Mary Menton and Justine Taylor report.

Ouch Leng in Prey Lang Forest, pictured in February 2021, protecting resin trees prior to his arrest.

On Friday 5 February, Cambodian forest activist Ouch Leng, a Goldman Environmental Prize recipient, was arrested along with four others. They had been putting up ‘No Chainsaw’ signs and wrapping trees with blessed saffron robes in a section of the vast Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary to campaign against illegal logging, an activity that has spiked in Cambodia throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

Last week, on 8 February, all five were released without charge and ordered not to return to the Sanctuary without permission. 

Ouch Leng and Heng Sros, along with members of the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) – Man Mat, Heng Run and Porng Cheang – had been peacefully putting up signs to deter loggers when they were detained by Ministry of Environment rangers around noon last Friday, near Achan village, Kratie province.  Officials from the Department of Environment transferred them to Kratie police station where they were held and interrogated.

These events are the latest in a series of incidents of judicial harassment and intimidation against these forest defenders.

For Ouch Leng and Man Mat their arrest and detention was almost an exact re-run of an earlier ordeal. On 13 March 2020, Ouch, Man and two other members of PLCN, Srey Thei and Khem Sokhy, were detained near the ThinkBiotech Concession in Prey Lang forest. Man Mat was physically assaulted by a ThinkBiotech security guard. The activists were then taken to cells in Kratie police station; they were held and interrogated for three days before being released. Ouch Leng was warned to stop investigating forestry crimes.

ThinkBiotech is a South Korean company engaged in clear-cutting 34,000 hectares of primary forest bordering the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary to plant monocultures of fast-growing timber, mainly acacia. 

Environmental groups and community members have alleged that the company is illegally cutting resin trees outside the company concession area. The trees, a species of the genus Dipterocarpus, produce a sticky resin that is sold for use in making paints, varnish and perfume. They are a cornerstone of many families’ livelihoods in the area and have special protection under Cambodian Forest Law. However, they are also targeted by loggers because of the quality of the timber, which can be used for construction or making ply. 

By blessing the trees with saffron monk’s robes the team of forest defenders hoped to stir respect and restraint within those intent on cutting them down. But even this action of traditional ‘blessing’ has been denied by the authorities.

In February 2020, armed and masked Ministry of Environment rangers banned members of PLCN from entering the forest to perform their annual tree-blessing ceremony. After this incident, a post appeared on the Ministry of Environment’s Facebook page stating that those entering the forest must have permission from the authorities under Article 11 of the Protected Area law. However, the law refers to zones: only the two most highly protected zones require permission to enter, the core zone and the conservation zone. While Prey Lang has been a protected area since 2016, it has still not been zoned, despite conservation groups expressing the view that zoning would help efforts to curb deforestation.

The Prey Lang Community Network has a track record of activism and was recipient of the United Nations Equator Prize in 2015 in recognition of the group’s innovative and effective work to protect Prey Lang forest. It is ironic that they are being harassed and obstructed by the Ministry of Environment, the authority responsible for forest protection. 

Dogged by judicial harassment, Ouch Leng is not the first Cambodian forest activist to face persistent attacks from the authorities.

The environmentalist Chut Wutty was attacked at gunpoint by civil and military police in Prey Lang forest in 2011, in what observers suspected was an assassination attempt, but was rescued by members of PLCN, who rushed, unarmed, to pull him out of the affray and secured his safety. Five months later, he was murdered in the Cardamom Mountains, in Cambodia's Southwest. 

Now his memory is also under attack. When Ouch Leng and community members living around Prey Lang forest organized an event in April 2020, to commemorate Chut Wutty’s heroism, they were forced to disperse by local authorities.

When Prey Lang forest became a protected area in May 2016, it was considered by many a win for PLCN and a part of Chut Wutty's legacy, as the network had long advocated for such a designation. But the protection on paper has yet to materialize on the ground.

Cambodia’s 2008 Law on Protected Areas states that one of the duties of the responsible authority is to ‘promote education and dissemination to the public to participate in the conservation and protection of natural resources within the protected areas’, along with their responsibility to ‘investigate, control and crackdown on natural resource offences’.

But such encouragement of public participation is far from the reality. Following one youth environmental campaign in Prey Lang forest, activist Heng Sros explained to Radio Free Asia that he thought the Ministry of Environment officials were trying, in fact, to impede the group’s activities. Not only that, but the rangers who followed behind them took no action to investigate the illegal logging, despite the youth activists documenting an estimated 2,000 cut logs during two days of patrolling the forest. 

The PLCN continues in its efforts to protect the forest, but the Ministry of Environment has turned increasingly antagonistic. And despite the forest’s official protected area status, deforestation has accelerated. Researchers from the University of Copenhagen found that Prey Lang had lost ‘more than one football pitch’ of forest cover every hour in 2019. Personal testimonies and GLAD forest loss alerts by the University of Maryland indicate that this year the losses are even greater.

It seems the Cambodian authorities are not only failing to protect the country’s diverse and still-extensive forests, but also are attacking those that do. 

Mary Menton is a Research Fellow at the University of Sussex, and Justine Taylor is a human rights researcher. This article was funded by the Polden-Puckham Charitable Foundation.