Blog / 7 Oct 2014

Obama pays tribute to slain activists, but we should also help those they leave behind

Barack Obama has pledged greater US support for rights defenders, who are increasingly being killed for standing up to injustice. Speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, the president paid special tribute to four slain activists, among them Chut Wutty from Cambodia.

Barrack Obama with Flag

Chut Wutty once worked with the campaigning organisation that I co-founded, Global Witness, investigating environmental and human rights abuses. He was shot dead several years later, in April 2012, by illegal loggers.

Wutty could never have imagined he’d be honoured by a US head of state. But having marked Wutty’s death, the US should now do justice to his life’s work, and contemplate the influence it has over the people he left behind.

Wutty was what’s known as an environmental defender, who sought to protect Cambodia’s forests against the country’s violent, multi-million-dollar trade in illegal lumber. He did this by exposing how a corrupt political and business elite flout their own laws on forest protection, strike land deals with companies without the consent of affected people, and send in soldiers to quell resistance.

Being an environmental defender has never been deadlier, with at least two activists killed each week globally. In Cambodia this has become a fight for survival. Since 2008, the government has leased the equivalent of 70% of the country’s arable land to private investors, through secretive and often corrupt deals. This has left hundreds of thousands people landless, robbing them of their livelihoods and compounding poverty across the country.

Wutty’s battle is still playing out in Prey Lang, one of Southeast Asia’s last lowland evergreen forests, home to critical biodiversity and around 200,000 people.

Among them is the Prey Lang Community Network, a group of villagers that patrol their forest in organised but peaceful groups. The community’s appeals to the authorities to leave their forest standing have been met with indifference, so they have resorted to alternative tactics. Members confiscate chainsaws and remove or burn illegal timber to keep it off the market.

This has pitched the network against a powerful hybrid of state and corporate forces. Cambodia’s timber business is dominated by a handful of business tycoons with close ties to the ruling party, backed up by military might. Armed police guard Prey Lang’s logging camps, and often intercept community meetings, brandishing guns and handcuffs. “Do you want to end up like Wutty?” became a popular taunt shortly after Wutty’s murder.

These threats aren’t always empty. Just weeks after Wutty’s murder, a 14 year-old girl was shot dead by Cambodian police in a land dispute between her community and a rubber company. Within months, a journalist investigating timber cartels was found brutally murdered in the boot of his car. Neither of these deaths was ever properly investigated.

If Obama is serious about tackling deaths like these then he should reassess his relationship to the countries they play out in. There is a huge influx of foreign aid into Cambodia, which currently provides the equivalent of nearly half the government budget – nearly $75 million has come from the US this year already.

Consumer money matters too. International law states that rare trees like rosewood should stay rooted in Cambodia, but they end up as four poster beds or vanity tables in US, European and Chinese bedrooms. Timber legislation like the US Lacey Act needs tougher enforcement if it is to keep illegal timber out of our ports and off our shop floors. Lacey is one of the best tools the US has to keep people like Wutty alive.

Chut Wutty was silenced by a bullet. But murder isn’t the only way to silence an environmental defender. You can do it subtly, by destroying their homes, starving them of food, bulldozing their religious sites, and taking away their jobs. The forest is all those things to the communities of Prey Lang, and it’s vanishing fast.

We cannot be a part of that. US leverage needs to extend to Cambodia’s forests and Obama needs to support its defenders more proactively than honouring their deaths.