It takes particularly cynical government officials to use the world’s focus on tackling COVID-19 to accelerate illegal logging of protected forests; simultaneously lining the pockets of business elites, attacking environmental activists, and sabotaging its own ability to fight the climate emergency. Yet this is exactly what some in Cambodia appear to be doing.
Since the beginning of the year, illegal logging within Cambodia’s Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary has escalated, as have efforts by the government to silence those who are monitoring and exposing this destruction.
Prey Lang Forest originally covered 500,000 hectares in central Cambodia. It is one of the largest remaining lowland evergreen forests in mainland Southeast Asia, home to the Kuy indigenous peoples and a biodiversity hotspot. Despite the vast majority becoming a designated Wildlife Sanctuary in 2016, with timber exports from the area banned, it has remained under sustained attack. The Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN), a grassroots network of mainly indigenous environmental defenders, has been monitoring illegal logging and forest clearance since 2001. From then until 2018, they have reported over 41,000 hectares of forest loss within Prey Lang – nearly 10% of the Wildlife Sanctuary.
But since February 2020, PLCN and other forest defenders have been prevented from entering the forest to monitor this destruction, locked out while illegal loggers enter and trucks transporting timber leave. During that same month, masked and armed Ministry of Environment rangers blocked the annual tree-blessing ceremony from taking place, where hundreds of community members, monks and environmental activists normally enter Prey Lang to highlight its value for people and the planet.
Within a matter of weeks, Goldman prize-winning activist Ouch Leng, together with PLCN members Khem Soky and Srey Thei and forest activist Men Mat, were detained by guards working for the Think Biotech Company, which holds an agribusiness concession on the edge of Prey Lang. The company guards then handed them over to the Cambodian Police. Cambodian civil society groups report that Men Mat was physically assaulted by company workers inside the Think Biotech compound. Although all four were released, they remain under investigation. Despite this, Leng remains determined to continue his forest monitoring activities.
Since being banned from carrying out patrols in the forest, PLCN has turned to satellite analysis as a means of monitoring forest loss. A study published by the network in April, in conjunction with the University of Copenhagen, the EU Joint Research Centre, and Global Forest Watch highlighted a significant spike in illegal logging and forest canopy disturbance in February 2020. However, since then Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment has reportedly called PLCN’s use of satellite analysis “unjustified and unauthorised” and warned they may consider taking legal action. Following this on April 24th, the Ministry issued a warning that it was illegal for unregistered organisations (such as PLCN) to undertake activities within the countries’ protected areas. PLCN is determined to stay unregistered; not only because the Cambodian Constitution guarantees their rights to do so, but because they have observed the activities of other community networks following formal registration has been curtailed by Government control.
The experiences of Ouch Leng, Khem Soky, Srey Thei, Men Mat and PLCN as a whole, are the latest in a long history of Cambodian authorities persecuting activists working to safeguard their country’s most precious natural heritage. This includes the notorious murder of environmental activist Chut Wutty eight years ago last month, killed by military police while investigating illegal logging. Today Cambodia continues to be one of the deadliest places to be an environmental defender in Southeast Asia.
It was in fact Wutty’s murder that prompted Global Witness to document and call–out the increase in killings and attacks on land and environmental defenders around the world. This combination of threats, attacks, detention and the use of legal tools to silence activists in Cambodia, are tactics deployed by Governments against land and environmental defenders across the world.
The profiteering by private companies through projects causing conflicts with local communities and defenders, is also a global phenomenon. Lu Chu Chang, a Taiwanese businessman who is director of Think Biotech (the company that detained Ouch Leng and his colleagues) and its associated company Angkor Plywood, has a long association with illegal logging and violation of Cambodians’ rights. Back in 2001, Global Witness investigations revealed the company he then ran, Cherndar Plywood, was unlawfully cutting villagers’ resin trees in neighboring Preah Vihear Province. In 2019, both companies were the subject of an official investigation after the Ministry of Environment received reports of illegal logging from the offices of the EU and USAID in Cambodia in October 2019. The Forest Administration, whose corruption and involvement in illegal logging Global Witness has repeatedly exposed, later cleared the companies of any wrongdoing.
Cambodia has been ranked as one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. Protection of forests like Prey Lang and its communities is essential if we are to have any hope of halting a catastrophic climate emergency. The Cambodian authorities must therefore urgently stop pandering to business interests, step up to its global responsibilities to protect its forests and end the persecution of land and environmental defenders. And the international community must not allow the urgent health pandemic to cast a shadow over the self-serving and destructive actions of governments and industries. It should not be left to Ouch Leng and his companions to fight this fight alone.