The forests of Cambodia, which the World Bank previously called its "most developmentally important natural resource," are being destroyed at an alarming rate, and 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 six days in February on motorbike, photographing both the harmonious relationship these communities have with the forest, and how that way of life is quickly slipping away. We stayed 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 26, 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 the shooting, despite continued calls by local activists and international NGOs, including the UN, for a more transparent investigation.
Responding to international pressures and attention, the Prime Minister of Cambodia has suspended the economic 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. So protests over the government's existing land concessions continue; just days ago a 14-year-old girl was killed by military police trying to evict rural Cambodians from their land.
When once the activists would have been intimidated by the action of the military, this time they are standing up and rallying around a cry that "it's our forest too" and "we are all Wutty."
All photos by Mathieu Young
Sam Ren, 50, stands in an area of forest cleared for a cassava plantation near Morn Village in Prey Lang.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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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