My work involves undercover investigating. I have disguised myself as a cook, a driver, a timber dealer and a tourist in order to collect evidence of the illegal logging happening in Cambodia, where we have some of the highest deforestation rates in the world. Criticising the government and timber magnates is very risky. My former colleague, Chut Wutty, was murdered by unknown assailants in 2012 while showing journalists an illegal logging camp in the southwest. Rangers in National Parks are often targets and have been shot for confronting illegal loggers. My family often have to move around if we fear for our safety.
I was born in Takéo province, where my parents were farmers. At the height of the Khmer Rouge, my family had to move from place to place to survive. When we moved to Phnom Penh, I cleaned classrooms in exchange for lessons. I won a scholarship to study law, which is when I began to notice the illegality occurring in Cambodia’s forests.
Since 2000, the government has been leasing large portions of the forest to private companies through Economic Land Concessions (ELCs). On paper these encourage large-scale agricultural plantations of cassava, sugar and rubber. However, in reality, ELCs are used as a disguise for illegal logging of coveted tree species, such as rosewood. Sawmills are set up within the ELC area and are used to launder illegal timber from the surrounding area. The illegal timber is then sold to markets in Vietnam and China for furniture. We are in a situation where legitimate development permits are being used to illegally clear land.
We want the Prime Minister Hun Sen, the National Assembly and the Ministry of the Environment to close all the sawmills in our protected forests. The sawmills are the epicentre of the logging and cause a wide ring of devastation.
Initially, the ELCs were supposed to develop livelihoods for the people – they were meant to establish schools, hospitals and boost the economy. In reality, they are destroying communities. Companies force villagers off the leased area, they erect fences, block waterways and reduce local economies. High-ranking officials and tycoons own the sawmills and private companies, meanwhile villagers have to buy bottled water and earn a pittance as employees. That being said, most people refuse to work for private companies as they treat local people like the enemy.
“We have to put ourselves at risk to write about Cambodia’s reality. It is the only way to protect the forests we have left”
Environmentally, it is devastating. The trees are removed with the roots so they can never grow back. Companies are also producing chemical effluents that flow through the watershed, contaminating the surrounding area.
When we find illegal logging operations, we confiscate their equipment: wood, chainsaws and even bulldozers. Our direct approach means that many NGOs are wary of working with us, they don’t want to appear too critical of the government and its affiliated trades. For that reason we are unfunded.
Since being exposed, the government has cancelled 23 land concessions covering 220,000 acres of forest, two of which had been protected by Virachey National Park. Other legal protections have also been put in place. However, the problem is not the red tape and legislation. It’s implementation of the law on the ground, in the trees themselves. The Ministry of the Environment never actually goes into the forest to patrol the protected areas. There are hundreds of trees falling with no one from the government around to hear them.
There is a limit to what I can do undercover now that my face can be recognised. I am thankful to win the Goldman Environmental Prize, it has raised my profile – so I will need to change the way I am working as well as the strategies of my NGO, the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force.
In the future, I hope it will be able to involve more young people, without the next generation it will be difficult to keep protecting the forests and nearby livelihoods. I would like to be a good role model and show young people how they can become law-literate for human and environmental rights.
The jungle is dangerous. The companies can be threatening and the environment just as hazardous with malaria, wildlife and temperamental weather. However, we have to put ourselves at risk to write about Cambodia’s reality. It is the only way to protect the forests we have left.
1975 Born in rural Takéo province
1980 Family moved to Phnom Penh
1993 Won a scholarship to the Royal University of Law and Economics
1997 Graduated from law school
1998–2008 Worked as an investigator for human rights groups
2016 Received the Goldman Environmental Prize
This was published in the July 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.