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