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Prey Lang: A Forest on the Brink of Destruction

SIGN THE CHANGE.ORG PETITION TO STOP THE ILLEGAL DEFORESTATION OF PREY LANG

The forests of Cambodia, which the World Bank previously called it’s “most developmentally important natural resource”, are being destroyed at an alarming rate to the financial benefit of the ruling elite. Global Witness calls Cambodia a ‘country for sale’, and according to a recent USAID report, without urgent action, Prey Lang, the largest evergreen lowland forest in Southeast Asia and home to an estimated 200,000 indigenous people, will be completely destroyed in 2-3 years.

Wanting to understand the effect that deforestation was having on the environment and indigenous communities, I traveled through Prey Lang for 6 days in February on motorcycle, staying in the forest homes of members of the Prey Lang Network, a grassroots association of villagers risking their lives to try and slow the destruction of their forest.

The danger to these activists became all too real on April 26th, 2012, when one of our guides, Chut Wutty, a leading activist for the protection of Prey Lang, was shot dead by Cambodian Military Police as he was working with journalists to expose illegal logging activities in another threatened region of Cambodia. After publishing three conflicting accounts of his death, the government has closed their investigation into his death. Responding to international pressures and attention, the Prime Minister of Cambodia has suspended the land concessions that Wutty was fighting against, but activists believe this is only a political maneuver, one that will be quickly reversed as soon as international eyes have turned away.

Click through to see more photos and to get involved.

Sok Khoeurn, 20, Puth Voeurn, 28, and Kong Neam, 49, gather hearts of palm in the forest near their village. They live in Sandan district, which is the site of  Prey Lang’s largest land concession. The sounds of chainsaws and billowing smoke plumes are omnipresent:  “We are scared of the Company that is clearing our forests every day… I am afraid I’ll have nothing to feed my children because our forest is being destroyed” said Ms. Khoeurn.

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Sam Meas, 64, supports his family by collecting resin from trees via controlled burns. “[Prey Lang] is very important to us… It is both our food and our farms.” Mr. Meas is a Kuy, an indigenous ethnic minority that has lived in harmony for hundreds of years. They are quickly being torn from their traditional lifestyles by the destruction of the forest.

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Prum Lom, 55, (right), an ethnic Kuy from Spong Village, gathers medicinal plants in Prey Lang. He says, “This forest is our business. We survive bacsue of the forest, by gathering byproducts like rattan, liquid resin, animals, and medicine.” Mr. Lom and other members of the Prey Lang Network spend up to 10 days at a time on patrol in the forest trying to stop small scale illegal logging.

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Mat Siev, 30, clears forest for a cashew plantation in Steung Treng province. Owning a chainsaw allows him to fell more than 100 trees per day. With the arrival of foreign owned companies, demand for small-scale illegal loggers like Siev has skyrocketed. Many illegal loggers pointed out that they have no other way to make an income, now that their resin trees and forest farms have been cleared for plantations by other loggers or larger companies.

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Mak Moer, 36, works for the illegal loggers, bringing supplies like gasoline for the chainsaws to them in the forest, and transporting cut timber out. “I know it’s illegal work, but I have nothing to do. I can’t work construction. My farm was destroyed by floods. I have no work in the village, and my rice is out of stock” said Mr. Moer, a father of two. “I am just transporting the timber, I have never cut a tree. I feel sad seeing the trees being cut.”

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Chut Wutty, a vocal environmental activist and the Director of the Natural Resources Protection Group, leads patrols of dozens of villagers into the forest to try and stop illegal loggers; confiscating their chainsaws and burning their felled timber. Their activities are deemed illegal by the military and police, and they are under constant threat of arrest by local authorities, some of whom own the chainsaws being used in the forest. While on patrol with Chut Wutty, he confiscated a chainsaw owned by the Deputy Governor of the district, Sandan.

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Chut Wutty burns wood felled by illegal loggers. His mission is to empower communities to take up the fight to protect their livelihood, in hopes the government will eventually recognize their collective voice. His approach has been two fold, both on the ground trying to document and stop illegal activity as they find it, and in the capital Phnom Penh were he has been trying to influence the government through petition and legal counsel. Still, he acknowledges “chainsaws are louder than the law.”

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On April 26th, Chut Wutty was shot dead by Cambodian Military Police while on a mission in the Cardamom Mountains to document illegal logging. According to the Phnom Penh Post, upon his death Wutty was “the country’s most vocal critic of the military’s alleged role in illegal logging conducted by companies granted land concessions in protected forests and related government corruption.” He leaves behind a wife and two children, as well as a massive hole in the leadership of environmental activism in Cambodia. His death serves as a chilling reminder of the danger that environmental activists put themselves in when standing up to well connected, monied powers in Cambodia, but activists are using his memory as a rallying cry to amplify their work in protecting Prey Lang and other important environmental resources in Cambodia and to bring them back from the brink of destruction.

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Despite their efforts, illegal logging is still occurring on a massive scale. Here, a truck most likely belonging to Vietnamese company PNT transports unmarked resin timber out of the forest, which according to GPS was well past the boundaries of their government concession. When they saw our camera, they immediately began shouting at us to stop filming and drove away. Chut Wutty asked, “the company [PNT] has finished their concession long ago. So why is wood still leaving the forest on their trucks?” Both the Cambodian government and PNT deny that this illegal logging is taking place, despite the clear evidence.

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A view of a rubber plantation owned by the Vietnamese company PNT, taken while driving a motorcycle and being pursued by both military police and private security, who were unable to catch up to us before we cleared the boundaries of the Company’s property. This area was very recently old growth forest and provided the home and livelihood for many people who are now displaced around the country. Prey Lang, and other vital old growth forests like it in Cambodia, are disappearing at an alarming rate. According to a recent report by USAID, without urgent action, Prey Lang will be completely destroyed in 2-3 years.

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The Prey Lang Network and associated groups are petitioning the government for action to save the forest. You can help. Visit www.preylang.com to learn more and take action, and SIGN THE CHANGE.ORG PETITION TO STOP THE ILLEGAL DEFORESTATION OF PREY LANG.