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April : Cambodia: where saving the forests is a matter of life and death

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24 April, 2018

Cambodia: where saving the forests is a matter of life and death

Cambodia: where saving the forests is a matter of life and death
A commemoration takes place on the second anniversary of the death of the slain Cambodian environmental
activist Chut Wutty at the site of his murder in Koh Kong province, on 26 April 2014.


"After the murders, not many people dared to go inside the jungle," Ouch Leng writes in an email.

In 2016, Leng won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for his fearless work bringing to light the defoliation and deforestation of his native Cambodia, a country which has lost more than 75 per cent of its forest cover to logging over the last three decades. The trade in Cambodia's timber is one that has generated countless billions of dollars, but all too often that money ends up in the pockets of kleptocratic tycoons, corrupt army generals and straight-up criminals. Those who pay the ultimate price are Cambodia's forest dwellers and environmental activists who find themselves dispossessed, robbed of their livelihoods, and sometimes even murdered.

Leng is conscious of the danger he places himself in every day but says that he will continue to put his life on the line to "fight with all my best against the illegal logging and timber business".

The latest casualties of Cambodia's deforestation are Thul Khna, an environmental activist with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Environment Ministry ranger Teurn Soknai, and their military police escort Sek Wathana.

As the sun set over the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary on 30 January, shots broke through the gloam while the three men were patrolling the ever-thinning forests of Mondulkiri province in eastern Cambodia.

According to a statement issued three days later by the WCS, the men were killed while "returning from the O'huoc border area after locating an illegal logging camp and confiscating chainsaws and motorbikes used for transporting wood."

Regional Governor Svay Sam Eng told the Phnom Penh Post that they died following a shootout with local border police. Cambodian Environment Ministry spokesman Eang Sophalleth did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

A view from the frontline

The deaths come as no surprise to Marcus Hardtke, a German environmentalist who has been studying and monitoring illegal logging in Cambodia for over 20 years.

"Usually it's other ‘uniforms'. It's not the local loggers resorting to violence," he says. "Our experience is generally it's mostly about money or debt going wrong. Some people who are logging pay money to the men in the uniforms, and then someone else comes along in a uniform and takes away the timber. The loggers say: ‘Hey, we already paid!' And it escalates that way."

Hardtke, who has been deported from Cambodia more than once for his work, says that January's murders will not stop him. "I mean, we had other killings before. In Preah Vihear [province] not so long ago, two guys were killed on patrol while they were sleeping in the forest," he says.

"It's situational. You cannot be too sure if there are some idiots with guns running around connected to military. In that sense it's quite dangerous."

In the early 2000s, Hardtke spent five years monitoring forest crimes for Global Witness, an investigative NGO documenting corruption in the natural resources industry, until the government kicked them out of the country in 2005. Their crime was producing an in-depth report titled Taking a Cut - Institutionalised Corruption and Illegal Logging in Cambodia's Aural Wildlife Sanctuary which identified clear links between illegal logging and the country's business and political elites.

While working with Global Witness, Hardtke often partnered up with former Cambodian military police officer Chut Wutty. Just a couple of years after the NGO was given the boot by the government, Hardtke and Wutty set up shop on their own, doing what they do best: gathering first hand evidence of the criminals stripping Cambodia's once lush forests bare.

"I was working with him, finding funding with him and giving him back-up," he recalls. "Until he got killed in 2012."

Wutty had been escorting two journalists from the now-shuttered Cambodia Dailynewspaper through the forests of Koh Kong province in April of that year when he was shot by military police. The court case was dropped less than six months later and his killers have never been brought to justice.

Big money, big risks

Not everybody in Cambodia is as cavalier as Hardtke about the risks of attempting to stem the tide of deforestation. One former senior staffer at an international organisation dealing with conservation issues, who asked not to be named, told Equal Times: "When the money is this big, it's worth killing for, and that's exactly what is happening. And if you use my name in the article, it will give someone a reason to kill me too. So please be careful."

Having spent four years - "the hardest working years of my life" - attempting to conserve Cambodia's forests, this person is now of the opinion that it is a futile endeavour.

"It is just a matter of time until it all disappears, given the level of greed involved. No sensible ranger will put himself in harm's way for a salary of US$200 per month. [...]There is no glory in saving the forest."

The destruction of rainforests and the murder of those that seek to prevent it is not a problem that is unique to Cambodia. Global Witness reported in February that 197 environmental and land defenders were murdered last year alone.

And on one level Cambodia has been lucky. The self-imposed economic isolation of the Khmer Rouge, followed by the international community's refusal to engage with the Vietnamese occupation government that followed it in the 1980s, kept the country's timber stocks relatively safe from the prying hands of global capital. But the moment those barriers came down, actors both at home and abroad were quick to seize the opportunity.

In evidence submitted to the UK's House of Commons, Global Witness noted that following the country's first post-war elections, Thai timber companies leveraged their contacts with the Khmer Rouge - whose holdouts by that time were waging a guerrilla campaign from Cambodia's forests - to secure US$10-20 million of wood each month.

"This trade continued with the full knowledge of the UN during their administrative period in Cambodia, and was also the subject of UN Resolutions calling for the trade to end," Global Witness added. "However, the international community did nothing to raise the issue to any effect with the Thais."

It did not take long for the Cambodian government to get in on the act. It started with the granting of massive economic land concessions (ELCs), which by the end of 2013 covered 14 per cent of Cambodia's land mass, to its domestic and international business allies.

On paper, ELCs were an initiative to inject foreign capital into an economy that had been in severe stagnation for decades. In the 1990s, companies were granted vast tracts of land at bottom-dollar rents in return for a promise to develop the land for industrial-scale agriculture. It was accepted that in order to make the land arable in heavily forested Cambodia it would be necessary to chop down a few trees. In reality, however, many of the concessions wound up being little more than mechanisms for laundering illegally felled timber. A 2014 study by the NGO Nature, Economy and People Connected found that 90 per cent of the country's timber products were a result of such schemes.

Upcoming elections and beyond

Although the decimation of Cambodia's forest cover is an emotive issue both inside and out of the country, this year's upcoming general elections are unlikely to be affected by it. Prime Minister Hun Sen is one of the world's longest serving leaders, having governed Cambodia in one guise or another since 1985. His hold on power is shored up in a large way by his divvying up of the country's natural and economic resources amongst his political allies.

To make a meaningful effort to put an end to deforestation would be to destroy one of the pillars of his power. And the odds of his being unseated at the ballot box are approaching zero following his dissolution of Cambodia's only meaningful opposition party last year. While the logging mafia and their political patrons are stripping the forests and attempting to eliminate all those who stand in their way, some people believe that international donors and conservation organisations are in some ways part of the problem.

Australian political scientist Andrew Cock spent several years as a forest policy advisor with Cambodia's NGO Forum and his 2016 book Governing Cambodia's Forests is perhaps the best on the topic.

On the question of whether international donors and conservation charities have "helped or hindered" local attempts to stop deforestation, "it depends on how you define the goal," he tells Equal Times. "[These organisations] seem to be mainly interested in high-profile species and less concerned about logging."

Cock explains that international donors and the World Bank are cautious of alienating the government when it comes to forestry reform, for fear that the government will stop working with them. As a result, the total halt to the destruction of Cambodia's forests has never been tabled.

"That was the broad debate over logging: that you have to give the forest economic value to the government," he explains. "We'd always be told how poor the government was and how poor the people were and how the government had to get money from somewhere. That was the level on which donors had leverage because of the government's lack of access to hard currency."

The donors' solution, Cock writes in his book, was best encapsulated in a World Bank policy known as Sustainable Forest Management (SFM). Prior to SFM coming into vogue in the early 1990s, the World Bank had actively sought out projects that would improve the efficiency of ‘forest exploitation' ventures. Then, as public opinion turned in favour of the environment, it needed a rebranding: hence the birth of SFM. "Their greatest achievement was thinking if you cut a tree you plant a tree, which works in a plantation but not a forest," says Hardtke.

"They are also too close to government. They don't have their own eyes and ears on the ground. They just rely on the rangers, and the rangers work for the other side [the government]," he adds. "Nobody blames them for not winning, but at least we want to see them trying - not to chicken out as soon as some high-ranking lowlife from the Phnom Penh mafia gets annoyed."

Ouch Leng, the Goldman Prize-winning activist, was similarly blunt in his emailed remarks: "What I need is more support from donors in forest protection, rather than using my information without giving me any help."

If the situation seems hopeless, that may be because it is. It has been nearly three decades since Cambodia and its forests were opened up to international commerce. In the early 1990s, white Range Rover-borne World Bank and United Nations consultants descended on the country en masse to spread the good word of the brave new post-Cold War world of unfettered commerce and ‘one man, one vote'. Three decades on, the result has been a system of governance described last year as a "descent into outright dictatorship"; an economy that - despite ample warning -concentrates the nation's wealth in the hands of a select few; and the outright plunder of its greatest natural resource, its forests.

Those that would challenge these seismic changes are more often than not repaid for their trouble with jail or a bullet. All the while, the international community - which just a few short years ago had dreamed of making Cambodia the poster child for its new way of doing business - leaves the bravest of them, such as Ouch Leng, starved of the financial means to stem the tide of history.

To its credit, the international community has tried over the years to make amends with hundreds of initiatives, almost all of them authored by yet more foreign consultants. Despite some of them meeting their self-defined goals, nothing has helped to preserve Cambodia's forests. At the start of this year, airline Virgin Atlantic pulled out of a carbon credit scheme after it emerged that "extensive deforestation has happened in [the] forest the project said it was going to save." As one of those foreign consultants wrote: "It's just a matter of time until it all disappears."

Source: Equal Times