Send a Picture, Save the World: Why International Solidarity Matters

02/24/2014 09:15 pm ET Updated Apr 26, 2014

April 26, 2012, was a date that shocked the conscience of not only an entire nation, but the world. On that fateful day, Cambodian military police shot to death environmental activist Chut Wutty. At the time of his death, Wutty was escorting two local journalists to a protected forest in Cambodia's Koh Kong Province. The crime for which Wutty paid for with his life was his refusal to hand over evidence that he had been gathering regarding illegal land-grabbing and deforestation operations in forests throughout Cambodia, particularly regarding the government and military's complicity in these rackets.

Prey Lang: IndoChina's Amazon

As the founder of the Natural Resource Protection Group (NRPG), Chut Wutty dedicated his life to environmental and land rights activism. Wutty also worked extensively with the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) and soon became a powerful national and international symbol of the Prey Lang movement. Prey Lang is the last large primordial evergreen forest of its kind in IndoChina with an uniquely vibrant biodiversity home to at least 40 endangered plant and animal species. Prey Lang also acts as a primary watershed to the Tonle Sap Basin and is thus vital for both long-term environmental sustainability and food and water security in Cambodia and the greater Mekong region. A 200,000 strong community of indigenous Kuy as well as Khmer forest communities call Prey Lang have depended on the forest for their ancestral livelihoods and culture for thousands of years. Prey Lang is as vital to Indochina's future as the mighty Amazon basin is to South America's.

Indeed like the Amazon, Prey Lang also faces unprecedented threats from illegal land developers and loggers who continue to devastate these fragile ecosystems-both natural and human-with virtual impunity. Prey Lang primarily threatened by agro-industrial rubber plantations and mining operations (primarily gold and silver). Communities throughout Prey Lang have been denied access to traditional agricultural land and their legal claims to the forest have not been recognized in direct violation of the rights guaranteed to them under the Cambodian Constitution. Indeed under Cambodian law all development projects must be subject to environmental impact assessments, including consultations with affected communities. The deforestation of Prey Lang also implicates significant violations of international Law as Cambodia is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, and International Tropical Timber Agreement.

Galvanized by Wutty's death, the indigenous Kuy and Khmer forest communities have joined grassroots organizations such as the PLCN to protect the forest they call home. PLCN organizes forest patrols to actively confront illegal loggers, while on a village-level PLCN communities coordinate with local Forestry officials to maintain village-level Community Forests to manage resources. Since its inception, the Prey Lang movement has grown to encompass a broader struggle for environmentalism, land rights, human rights, and indigenous empowerment.

International Conscientiousness Inspires Local Courage

Social media has proven itself to be a powerful 21st century tool in mobilizing social movements throughout the world. Recognizing the limitless possibilities of the digital revolution, the PLCN has partnered with civic and youth-based organizations in order to harness the power of social media to share on-the-ground developments in real-time and to coordinate with allied organizations around the world. The PLCN also set up a petition in an effort to force the Cambodian government to directly address the issue. In order to raise awareness of the Prey Lang movement both nationally and internationally, the PLCN launched its "Prey Lang It's OUR Forest Too" campaign in order to create a forum where supporters of Prey Lang can publicly take a stand. "Friends of Prey Lang" from all over the world continue to send a stunning variety of solidarity pictures of themselves; some in front of famous landmarks, others in their home's backyards. Some pictures showcase nature's most beautiful and formidable sights, while others highlight both the urban and suburban jungle. Some Friends have even recruited man's best friend to the cause. Yet every Friend is united in their goal of sharing with the world why Prey Lang and environmentalism matters to them and to help raise awareness of their newfound cause.

As Chut Wutty's death amply demonstrated to the world, there are powerful forces behind Prey Lang's deforestation. As a result, Cambodians -- and especially youth who are afraid of their careers being black-listed or worse -- have historically been hesitant to publicly advocate for Prey Lang.

Acts of International Solidarity: Not Just a Fashion Statement

Yet the impact of these solidarity pictures on reinvigorating the Prey Lang movement have been extraordinary. Within a few months of the "Prey Lang It's OUR Forest Too" solidarity campaign, Cambodians from all walks of life have openly embraced the Prey Lang banner. Pictures of ordinary Americans and Europeans expressing their deep concern for Prey Lang -- and unrelenting support for those who are fighting to preserve it -- have served as a potent antidote to both apathy and fear. Cambodians have routinely reacted to these pictures with comments expressing their amazement at how strangers from around the world have so poignantly expressed their passions about an issue in their own backyard.

Soon vast segments of Cambodian society encompassing university students and youth, mothers and fathers, and even actively serving civil servants began taking a stand for Prey Lang. The number of Cambodian Friends of Prey Lang joining the campaign increased significantly, as they began publicly advocating for their government to conserve the forest and protect the land rights of its indigenous communities.

Creating a Space for Action

Throughout history, international solidarity of all stripes has played a crucial role in confronting injustice. For instance, it was largely the grassroots activism of university students and other conscientious "citizens of the world" who lobbied governments around the world to enact crippling sanctions on the South African apartheid regime. In an encouraging development in the fight to save the Amazon, the Brazilian government recently deployed its army to protect one of its most vulnerable indigenous communities-largely due to the role of international solidarity in shaping public opinion within Brazil.

International solidarity is most valuable not in the individual act of solidarity itself, but what those acts collectively allow others to do. International solidarity helps to bring the attention of the world on crises which otherwise would remain "local issues." Unethical corporations, corrupt governments, and other powerful actors can no longer ignore such crises or the communities which they affect. They can no longer so easily suppress or otherwise marginalize courageous citizens who mobilize to confront such injustices. International solidarity helps enlarge the space available for local activists, youth, and members of civil society in which they can operate.

Selfies for a Cause

In response to a series of bombings and shootings which have killed or wounded hundreds of innocent bystanders, the Lebanese youth launched an innovative campaign to stand up to sectarian and political violence through social media. As Lebanese participants from all walks of life rallied to personally express their condemnation towards the violence's perpetrators and solidarity with its victims, the #NotAMartyr campaign they unleashed would serve as a powerful reminder that mainstream Lebanese society would no longer tolerate sectarian hatred of any kind.

Since 1980, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam have collectively lost nearly 40 million hectares (ha) of forests which amount to nearly one-third of their total forest cover. At the current rate of deforestation and exploitation, by 2030 these nations could be left with little more than 10 to 20 percent of their original cover.

The "Prey Lang It's OUR Forest Too" campaign is certainly meant to be a fun way of spreading awareness. Yet the impact of such campaigns go beyond a creative PR campaign -- and this impact is real. In fact, the Prey Lang Community Network accepted the Alexander Soros Foundation's 2013 Award for Extraordinary Achievement in Environmental and Human Rights Activism on behalf of the late Chut Wutty, which was due to both the on-the-ground activism of the PLCN as well as its innovative social media operations and campaigns.

Call them fashionable, eccentric, or indulgent, but each picture sent by the international community to the PLCN represents a simple yet powerful act of international solidarity. Facebook and the Twitterverse are littered with every "selfie" imaginable. Why not take a selfie for a cause that matters? Why not lend your image in order to inspire others to speak up, and tell the world why Prey Lang, environmentalism, and indigenous rights matter to you? You will be amazed what impact a simple picture with a short statement of solidarity can make.

Continuing to Make a Difference

After you send a solidarity picture to and (inevitably) become as inspired from the courage of Cambodian as they were from your conscientiousness, you will likely start wondering how else you can help. There are a wide variety of ways to further support the Prey Lang Movement:

*Sign the petition to force the Cambodian govt. to address the issue
*Follow the campaign on Facebook and Twitter
*Spread the word about Prey Lang to your family, friends, colleagues, and the media
*Establish Prey Lang support chapters at your universities and local communities
*Help fundraise for volunteer forest patrols, Community Forest management projects, and other PLCN activities.

Empowering the Powerless: Re-balancing the Equation

Finally, if you happen to be reading this as a private citizen or a representative of an organization, business, government, or any other entity blessed with fame, fortune, and authority, you should know that Prey Lang represents a remarkable cause just waiting for your endorsement and support. While the international community has largely dithered on the ongoing tragedy in Darfur, George Clooney single-handedly helped to change the equation in Darfur by funding a spy satellite program which has helped monitor Sudanese troop movements and given advanced warning to civilians.

The powers behind the deforestation of this natural marvel continue to enjoy political cover and corporate financial muscle and can even kill their opponents will. Your assistance can similarly make a pivotal difference for not just Prey Lang, but entire ecosystems and communities fighting against deforestation and greed-driven injustices worldwide. Please do your part to help save The Amazon of IndoChina today.

Dedicated to my heroic comrades and friends in both the Prey Lang Community Network and Cambodian Youth Network with whom I had the pleasure to work with during my 2013 summer legal internship with Open Development Cambodia as a Fellow for the William and Mary Program in Comparative Legal Studies and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding.