In 2011, in Cambodia’s northern Prey Lang forest I witnessed as a forest defender, Chut Wutty, prepared a group of community campaigners to enter the CRCK rubber company concession. They wanted to investigate the extent of deforestation it had caused. The group were tired, for ten days they had been patrolling through the forest hunting for illegal loggers. “We’re doing this for our children,” Wutty said, “We won’t be here forever.”
Wutty is the subject of my documentary ‘I Am Chut Wutty’, which premiers in London tomorrow He was one of Cambodia’s most prominent activists, and advisor to the Prey Lang Network – a community group spanning four provinces, organised to protect the Prey Lang forest against illegal logging and industrial scale deforestation. Trained as a military officer in Russia and in the Cambodian Armed Forces, Wutty approached forest protection with strategic acumen. As a close friend of Chut Wutty, Marcus Hardtke explained, “Wutty knew what the other side was thinking, so he could disrupt their plans.”
At a clearing in the CRCK concession, Wutty organised teams to stack and burn huge piles of illegally cut logs, to ensure that no one could profit from them. As the flames rose, military trucks appeared. Within minutes, Wutty was wrestled to the ground. I struggled to turn on my camera, shaking, while the community rushed to Wutty’s aid. Later he explained how old friends from the military police tried to warn him seconds before the attack.
Wutty was no stranger to death threats. Determined not to be compromised, he had refused offers of asylum in the United States, explaining, “If I don’t do this work, no one will. People are too afraid.”
Just five months after I watched Wutty wrestled to the ground, he was gunned down at an illegal logging site in the Cardamom Mountains. His murder was never thoroughly investigated. It was claimed that a military police officer killed in the same altercation had been responsible for shooting Wutty and, with the chief suspect dead, the case was dropped.
Wutty’s efforts live on in Prey Lang. The activists he supported are determined to maintain the integrity of their network but they too face intimidation and threats. This year, a community leader from Kampong Thom, Chheang Vuthy, was targeted in a knife attack. “I won’t stop until I’m killed like Chut Wutty,” was his response.
As Global Witness’ recent Deadly Environment report shows, globally the deaths of environmental defenders are rising. Over the last four years on average two environmental defenders have been killed every week, and in the vast majority of cases the perpetrators are unnamed and unpunished.
Just three weeks ago, four Peruvian forest activists were murdered fighting to defend their forests against the onslaught of illegal logging. In this all too familiar story, they had written hundreds of letters to the government requesting title to their land and reporting deforestation. They had also appealed for state protection in response to death threats from illegal loggers.
One of the activists said before his death, “Nothing will defeat us if we stay together… It doesn’t matter who the face of the network is. All that matters is that we push and walk together.” It is now up to us, friends and witnesses, to make sure their dreams do not die with them, to hold the killers to account, and to stand with the next generation of forest defenders whose lives are on the line.
Fran Lambrick is a filmmaker and environmental campaigner. The documentary film, I am Chut Wutty, directed by Franis showing on Tuesday 23rd September at the Frontline Club.