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Environmental journalist investigating illegal logging murdered in Cambodia

Aerial view of illegal logging in Cambodia. Photo by: Paul Mason USAID/Cambodia/OGD.
Aerial view of illegal logging in Cambodia. Photo by: Paul Mason USAID/Cambodia/OGD.

Less than five months after high-profile forest activist, Chut Wutty, was killed in Cambodia, an environmental journalist, Hang Serei Oudom, has been found slain in the trunk of his car, possibly murdered with an ax, reports the AFP. Oudum, who worked at the local paper Vorakchun Khmer Daily, was known for writing stories on epidemic of illegal logging in Cambodia, often linking the crime to business people and politicians. The car and body were found in a cashew nut plantation in Ratanakiri province, an area rife with logging.

“Before he was murdered, other journalists had warned him not to write critically about the forest crimes,” Pen Bonnar, with The Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (Adhoc), told AFP. 44-year-old Oudom also wrote about traffic accidents and protocol, according to his editor.

Oudom was last seen by his wife Sunday evening when he told her he was going to a meeting and would be back shortly. He was found Tuesday with wounds to the head that police say are consistent with an ax or baton.

An investigation into the murder is ongoing, but earlier today police detained a military police officer, Captain An Bunheng, for questioning. Ten other people are said to be under question.

“There is a lot of money at stake. These are well-equipped, well-financed groups of individuals,” Ou Virak, president of Adhoc, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). “These illegal loggers will certainly do what they can to protect their interests, including killing of activists trying to stop them.”

International group, Reporters Without Borders, has urged police to discover if the murder was at all linked to Oudom’s coverage of deforestation issues. Oudom shared many similarities with Chut Wutty, who was killed in April escorting two journalists to an area known for illegal logging. Both men spent their adult lives trying to shine a light on a lucrative and illegal industry that is decimating Cambodia’s forests and robbing communities of their livelihoods. Chut Wutty’s death still remains shrouded in mystery with several narratives put forward and no official investigation; many fear the investigation into Oudom’s death will also fizzle out.

The role of economic land concessions in Cambodia forest loss

Illegal logging of rosewood, a highly sought luxury timber, in Virachey National Park. Photo by: Greg McCann.
Illegal logging of rosewood, a highly sought luxury timber, in Virachey National Park. Photo by: Greg McCann.

Between 1990 and 2010, Cambodia lost nearly a quarter (22 percent) of its forest cover, an area larger than Haiti. As of 2010, around 57 percent of the country was covered in forest, but only 3.2 percent of this was primary forest. But not all of this is connected to illegal logging; deforestation in Cambodia is often government-sanctioned.

The government has recently handed out numerous ‘economic land concessions’ to foreign corporations that allow them to cut forests ostensibly for agriculture, even in protected areas. Rising protests by locals over the practice, as well as the death of Chut Wutty, pushed Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to suspend any new economic land concessions, although several have since been granted. In all, according to Adhoc, two million hectares (4.9 million acres) of Cambodia—comprising over 10 percent of the country’s total land area—had been handed over to corporation for logging, mining, agriculture, and other development through economic land concessions.

One such example is Virachey National Park, located in Ratanakiri Province, where Oudum was found dead. The massive protected area, which is plagued by logging and threatened by mining, was stripped last year of 9,000 hectares for a rubber plantation. According to author and explorer, Greg McCann, Virachey has been largely abandoned by conservation groups even though it is home to “jaw-dropping” landscapes and may still be home to a number of important species like tigers.

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