In August authorities arrested three staff members of the environmental group Mother Nature Cambodia for their involvement in a direct-action campaign to stop the dredging of sand from the rivers and estuaries of Koh Kong province.
In October authorities arrested an indigenous Chong activist from Cambodia’s Areng valley who was central to a broad campaign opposing the Areng hydroelectric dam. He is charged with illegally using timber to build a community and visitor center.
In recent months Cambodian authorities have imprisoned several members of the parliamentary opposition party and other activists, and passed a law requiring NGOs to register with the government and restricting the activities of unregistered groups.
Cambodian authorities have detained four activists linked to the environmental group Mother Nature Cambodia. The four, all Cambodian nationals, await trial at a prison in the country’s southwestern province of Koh Kong. Their detention, during what human-rights campaigners describe as a nationwide government crackdown on democracy, has sparked protests and mounting concerns over their wellbeing while in custody.
Three of the detained activists, San Mala, Try Sovikea, and Sim Somnang, are Mother Nature staff. Authorities arrested them on August 17 for their involvement in a direct-action campaign to stop the dredging of sand from the rivers and estuaries of Koh Kong, an area noted for its outstanding mangrove forests.
The authorities claim that the dredging companies had permission to carry out their work, which Mother Nature contests. The three could face up to two years in prison and stiff fines if convicted of threatening to cause damage to the dredgers, charges they deny. No court date has been set for their trial and two courts have denied their requests for bail, the Cambodia Daily reported in September.
Mother Nature’s founding director Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson expressed grave doubt about the transparency and fairness of the proceedings in an interview with Mongabay. “It’s a completely political accusation in a kangaroo court, which is controlled by the criminal sand-mining cartel or maybe even something above that, such as the top echelons of the government,” said Gonzalez-Davidson, who is currently in exile in Spain, having been deported from Cambodia in February for his activities.
The fourth prisoner, Ven Vorn, is an indigenous Chong activist from the Areng valley, situated on the elevated reaches of the Areng River in the Cardamom Mountains, which straddle Koh Kong and the neighboring province of Pursat. These mountain forests comprise a watershed from which large rivers like the Areng, Tatai, and Phreak Piphot flow down to the coast, eventually widening into mangrove lined estuaries. Jailed on October 7, Vorn was central to a broad campaign involving local communities and groups like Mother Nature that led the government to shelve plans for the Areng hydroelectric dam in February this year. He is charged with illegally using timber from the nearby forest to build a center for his community and Mother Nature to receive visitors arriving to the valley.
The Cambodia Daily reported that Vorn was charged under Article 98 of the country’s Forestry Law with illegally harvesting forest products. This carries a maximum prison sentence of five years. He was also charged under Article 533 of the criminal code with tampering with evidence, which holds a maximum prison sentence of three years. Vorn maintains that the community used some of the savings from a tourism project to purchase the timber from fellow community members.
Sand dredging by Chinese and Vietnamese companies in Cambodia began around 2008. Dredging companies regularly send container shipments of river sand to Singapore, where it is used for construction as the city-state rapidly expands. A 2010 report by the international NGO Global Witness documented the trade, and evidence suggests that it continues apace. For instance, Singapore Ministry of Finance records indicate that in 2015 the city-state issued tenders for building sand with a maximum total value of $65 million, and this summer Mother Nature activists photographed dredging barges unloading their cargo onto a ship bound for Singapore. Companies also dredge and export enormous quantities of sea sand from Cambodia for land reclamation in Singapore, according to the Global Witness report.
The report outlined damage the dredging causes to the environment and how it encourages corruption, but since it came out the practice has continued largely unopposed. However, fishing communities are becoming increasingly vocal in their opposition to the dredging because they say it has decimated fish stocks, affecting their livelihoods.
“Now when we go fishing we don’t even catch one kilo. Before there was a lot more,” Ken Yut Theary, a woman living in Koh Sralav village on the banks of the Koh Kong estuary, told Mongabay. She had given up fishing and taken to dressing crab for hire instead. “Due to the fishery collapse a lot of the girls in the village have no choice but to go and work in factories in the special economic zone,” she said, referring to the new factory development between Koh Kong city and the Thai border.
Mother Nature began its campaign against the sand dredging on April 12 by rallying local community members to join them in occupying sand dredging barges belonging to Vietnamese company International Rainbow, which was operating on the small island of Koh Sralav in the Koh Kong estuary. The campaign shifted focus soon after when around a hundred dredgers belonging to International Rainbow and another Vietnamese company called Direct Access were sighted in the Andong Teuk estuary about 40 kilometers (25 miles) to the east.
On July 28 the first of several anti-sand mining protests in the Andong Teuk estuary took place, with Mother Nature activists and local-community members forming a flotilla of fishing boats displaying banners. The boats surrounded the huge steel dredging barges and eight members of Mother Nature along with around a hundred community members occupied the dredging barges and cranes, forcing them to stop work. The protesters requested that their crews leave the estuary. Many of the barges started to retreat out to sea and some with broken engines were towed away by the protesters’ fishing boats.
Koh Kong police issued a summons to three Mother Nature activists over the incident on August 14. In response, two of the named activists chained themselves to a bridge over the Andong Teuk River the next day and awaited the authorities. Two days later, on August 17, police officers arrested Mala, Sovikea, and Somnang at the scene. (Mala and Sovikea were named on the original summons, but Somnang was not.)
Their detention quickly provoked protests and marches. Protesters established a camp outside the provincial court and prison in Koh Kong city, where the three were held. On August 19, police reacted by turning away members of fishing communities who had travelled from the Andong Teuk estuary region to lend their support. Two days later police also raided the offices of Mother Nature in Koh Kong city.
Over the following week protester numbers swelled from a few dozen to over a hundred as the issue spread in the media and attracted support from further afield, including the capital Phnom Penh. However, by the end of the month the authorities’ patience had worn thin. On September 1 authorities broke down the protest camp and the court denied bail for Mala, Sovikea, and Somnang. The following day police arrested 17 people, including human rights monitors and journalists, and detained them for eight hours, according to the Phnom Penh Post.
Since then concern for the welfare of the four prisoners has grown, as conditions in the jail are believed to be poor. Gonzalez-Davidson said that family members allowed to make visits report that the prisoners are forced to spend long stretches of each day separated from each other in hot, overcrowded cells.
Mother Nature has started a fundraising campaign to buy food and provisions for the prisoners and also to support their families with travel and living costs. The Phnom Penh-based group the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (aka LICADHO) has provided Mala, Sovikea, and Somnang with three legal representatives and Vorn has organized separate legal representation.
Rhona Smith, the UN special human rights rapporteur for Cambodia, visited the three prisoners on September 18. Her office expressed concern about the situation in emails to Mother Nature staff and The Voice of America reported that she said she would bring the issue up with Koh Kong authorities.
Mother Nature is maintaining its anti-dredging activities, but faces an uphill struggle due to an increasingly oppressive political climate.
“Authorities have done the right thing. We know that Mother Nature always causes problems and incites people,” said Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, according to an October 24 report in the Cambodia Daily. He was referring to a democracy-training session that two Mother Nature staff and four students held in the Botum Sakor district to the south of Koh Kong, which local authorities had stopped for failing to obtain official permission.
In recent months several members of the parliamentary opposition party and other activists have been imprisoned in what human rights observers have described as a crackdown on democracy.
The Cambodian government has also passed a law requiring NGOs to register with the government and restricting the activities of unregistered groups. Gonzalez-Davidson called the new law “very repressive,” saying it contains provisions allowing authorities to shut down an NGO as it sees fit. Mother Nature is currently registered but given the level of government attention the group has received, Gonzalez-Davidson does not know how long it will maintain that status.
“Why do they fear Mother Nature? Not because we have been doing anything illegal,” Gonzalez-Davidson said. Rather, he said, it is “because we have been able to mobilize people, at local levels, a real grassroots movement of activists and local communities, which is able to stop these crimes against nature and which is, most importantly, able to tell people what the truth is.”
Global Witness (2010) “Shifting Sand, how Singapore’s demand for Cambodian sand threatens ecosystems and undermines good governance.” Global Witness, London, UK.