New Front in the Battle for Cambodia’s Wilderness
Officials from Cambodia's Sub-committee for Combating Forest Crimes inspect logs in Rattanakiri Province, Jan. 26, 2016.
Using a pair of helicopters and a dozen armored vehicles to reach the most inaccessible areas, Cambodian authorities are claiming an early victory in their battle to stop the illegal logging trade that has decimated the nation’s forests.
National Military Police Commander Gen. Sao Sokha, who heads the 10-member Coalition Committee for Forest Crime Prevention, forwarded its first forest crime cases to Prime Minister Hun Sen and the courts for review this week, government officials told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Officials say the crackdown against pirate logging outfits in Kampong Cham, Tbong Khmum, Kratie, Steung Treng, Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri provinces led to 57 forest crime cases and government confiscation of more than 70,000 cubic meters of logs and saw timber since Hun Sen ordered the formation of the committee in January.
Government officials claim they have forced the pirate logging outfits to pull up stakes or cease operations in the areas where the committee’s troops have been active.
“We still continue doing our work,” National Military Police spokesman Eng Hy told RFA. “We have not stopped, wherever the location in the provinces is unreachable, we use tanks and helicopters for our operations.”
Hun Sen has even given the OK to use helicopter-fired rockets in their attempt to uproot the pirate logging outfits.
While Cambodian officials contend the campaign is bearing fruit, outside observers and even some inside the government question the effort’s effectiveness.
Leng Ouch, winner of this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize, told RFA that he saw little positive in the government’s actions.
“It seems that there were no positive signs regarding this matter,” he said. “Because the prime minister promised in 2002 that he would cut his head off or resign if he could not protect the forests. Since then, we have not seen anything realistic.”
Tek Vannara, executive director of The NGO Forum on Cambodia, said the public needs transparency in the forest crime efforts so people outside the government and the ruling party know what is actually going on.
“I think that this is a crisis operation, cracking down on forest crimes in Cambodia,” he said “And what the civil societies want to see is transparency in the crackdowns.”
There were even questions raised over the efficacy of the crackdown by government officials as Environment Minister Say Samal told reporters on April 18, that he and U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia William Heidt still saw logging operations at work in Prey Lang when they made a helicopter tour of the area.
“Prey Lang is the wealth of all Cambodians,” he said. “Therefore, we all have roles to play to preserve the forests. We made this trip is to see how the Prey Lang areas are doing in reality.”
Leng Ouch says that civil society organizations will work with the government, if officials prove they are serious.
“We will collaborate with the government, but in reality the government considers those who protect the forests and protect the environment as their enemy,” he said.
“I will appeal to international community to push the government to protect the forests seriously rather than practice their actions only on paper and promise to various donors as well as to the people to just gain popularity and votes. This is the reality, and it is not aimed at criticizing the government.”
Chut Wutty’s legacy
That reality is a dangerous one, as violence unleashed against green activists is growing.
The London-based environmental rights group Global Witness reports that more than 700 environmentalists were murdered in the decade that began in 2001.
In its 2015 report Global Witness found that at least two environmental activists are killed each week with 116 environmental activists were murdered in 2014. Nearly 40 percent of the green activists killed are locals, the group said.
According to the activist group Not 1 More, environmentalists in Cambodia face special risks.
Chut Wutty, founder of the Cambodia’s Natural Resource Protection Group, was shot dead in April 2012 after establishing himself as one of the country’s most prominent defenders of the forests.
He was killed during an altercation with military police as he and two journalists were investigating suspected illegal logging in a near a protected forest in Koh Kong Province.
An official investigation, found that a military police officer shot Chut Wutty before being accidentally shot dead by another officer. Their report was widely criticized by rights groups for being short on evidence or explanations. The provincial court eventually dropped the case against the surviving officer.
Chut Wutty’s life and death became the subject of a British documentary “I Am Chut Wutty.” While the film has won critical acclaim, the government forced a Phnom Penh theater to pull the film, which was later shown by one NGO in defiance of the de facto ban.
On April 18, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts told Nico Mesterharm, founder and director of Meta House, that he could not screen the film, The Cambodia Daily reported.
Ministry of Fine Arts’ Spokeman Thai Noreak Satya told RFA that Meta House failed to obtain permission to show the film.
“We don’t have any resentfulness about the film,” he said. “We just want them to look at the legal grounds.”
Chut Wutty’s son Chheuy Oudom Reaksmey told RFA that it is the intention of the Cambodian government to bury the memory of his father.
“The intention of the government is to prevent the people from knowing the death of my father,” he said. “They want to close the case.”
“If they had nothing to do with my father’s death, they should be open about it because my father has helped the nation a lot by helping protect our natural resources,” he said. “When someone is already dead, and even his video is not allowed to be seen, it seems to be serious discrimination.”
Violence and threats continue
Chut Wutty’s death may have been the most sensational, but threats, intimidation and attacks still occur, despite the government’s new-found interest in stopping forest crimes.
Phorn Sopheak’s left leg was injured when she was attacked by an unidentified man while she was sleeping in the forest on the night of March 26. She was on a patrol with the Prey Lang Community Network, a group of Kuy ethnic volunteers that aim to protect the Prey Lang Forest.
Mother Nature, a Cambodian grassroots environmental group, said three of its members were arrested and jailed because of their efforts to protect the wetland forest in Koh Kong.
Buddhist monk But Buntenh told RFA that he received a death threat on Wednesday from a former soldier who was upset that he was teaching local forest activists to protect the Prey Lang Forest.
“He said he won’t forgive me, he will kill me,” But Buntenh told RFA, adding that the villager was paid 5,000 riel (U.S. $ 1.25) to threaten activists.
“I am teaching villagers how to stop illegal timber smuggling and encourage villagers to be agents or reporters to report about the forest crime,” he said. “It is against their [loggers] benefits. They are mad about it.”
For Leng Ouch, the only way to make the illegal lumber trade end before all of Cambodia’s forests are mowed down is to take away the profit motive that drives Cambodians to sell out what he sees as their birthright.
“China and Vietnam seem to be the masters of Cambodia as they come to invest in Cambodia and they collect the natural resources, cut the forests and export the raw materials back to their countries to become rich,” he said. “That leaves the Cambodian people suffer the impact of losing forests and makes their livelihood become worse and worse from one year to another.”
Cambodia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, largely due to illegal logging. A report issued last year Global Witness found that government and military officials collude with businessmen to illegally cut and transport Cambodian timber mainly to China.
Reported by Banung Ou, Sel San, Southerin Yeang, Thai Tha and Vutny Huot for RFA’s Khmer Service, with additional reporting by Brooks Boliek. Translated by Panawath Khun and Samean Yun. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.