On April 26th, a Cambodian environmental activist named Chut Wutty was killed by military police. Two journalists present at the incident reported that Wutty was shot after refusing to hand over photographic evidence he had been collecting. A subsequent government inquiry -- open and shut within three days -- not only failed to address the details of his death, but also prohibited further inquiry into the issue Wutty was investigating: namely, the systematic stripping and selling-off of Cambodia's forests.
Wutty was part of the Prey Lang Network -- a grassroots group of activists fighting to save the Prey Lang forest, Southeast Asia's last remaining intact lowland evergreen forest. His death is the latest episode in a long and sorry history of Cambodian dissenters being intimidated or even silenced by a kleptocratic elite ransacking the country's natural resources for personal gain. Home to the Kuy indigenous people for centuries, the Prey Lang forest possesses significant biodiversity value as well as being a critical source of water for the country's rice-growing areas. In fact the battle the Kuy are fighting against the march of logging, plantations and mining companies into the forest holds an uncanny resemblance to the plot of Avatar -- and in what might otherwise be a charming example of life imitating art, they have even tried using the film to bring media attention to their cause...
Except this is real-life. And the bullets are real.
Cambodia has a sad history of state abuse and violence, but Wutty's death and the attention it has begun to receive provides an unprecedented opportunity for the international activist community to pressure the Cambodian government to reform. A growing chorus of NGOs -- including Global Witness -- are calling for a full inquiry into Chut Wutty's death, reform of Cambodia's notoriously corrupt natural resource sector, and an end to the persecution of those who defend forest and land rights. The time has come for the Cambodian government to afford its citizens a meaningful say in what happens to the country's resources; rather than line the pockets of a small, corrupt elite, the riches of Cambodia must serve to lift its people out of poverty.
This problem -- and its possible solution -- is not as distant as it might appear. With savagely ironic timing, on the day Wutty was killed, USAID announced a $20m grant to "support forests and biodiversity" in Cambodia. The potential for this kind of aid money as a powerful force for good has too long been squandered on landmark conservation projects, many of which have been fatally undermined by the Cambodian Prime Minister and his cronies who habitually plunder resources that might otherwise drive development. To make matters worse, little of this money ever reaches the kind of grassroots organizations Wutty worked with. As a mark of respect for his work -- and to signal our desire for change -- we as US citizens must call on our government to ensure our tax dollars be used to support such groups. The forests they are fighting to defend are not only their homes, but ours as well. They are nothing less than the essence of the natural world.
The work of the Prey Lang group is but one example of the heroic and dangerous work being done every day by activists around the world in the essential fight against "the resource curse." We must let them know they are not alone. Making sure our aid money reaches its target is the right place to start.
Edward Zwick is a member of the Global Witness Advisory Board.