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In Cambodia, a rare acquittal in a climate of danger for green activists

Villagers protesting UDG outside the Chinese Embassy hold up signs and chant into a megaphone. Image by Andrew Nachemson.

  • Deported environmental activist Alejandro-Gonzalez Davidson, who faced charges relating to protests against sand dredging in Cambodia, was found not guilty by a Phnom Penh court on Aug. 22.
  • Three Cambodian activists have already served 10 months in prison over charges stemming from the same protests, and still face large fines.
  • Activists working in Cambodia face grave dangers from both authorities and illegal mining and logging interests.

KOH KONG, Cambodia — In a rare ruling, a court in Cambodia has decided to acquit a Spanish environmental activist charged with incitement, the state’s default accusation against most forms of protest.

Alejandro-Gonzalez Davidson, the founder of the NGO Mother Nature Cambodia (MNC), stood accused of acting as an accomplice to three Cambodian activists who were arrested for protesting sand-dredging in the coastal province of Koh Kong. The four were charged with incitement and threatening to destroy private property, but in its ruling on Aug. 22, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court found Gonzalez-Davidson not guilty.

“We are still waiting to see if the prosecutor appealed the decision,” he said in a text message from Spain, adding that the “circus” might not be over.

Gonzalez-Davidson’s Cambodian colleagues were convicted on related charges in 2016 and sentenced to 18 months in prison. The final 10 months of their sentences were suspended and all three have since been released, but still face large fines.

“I am not aware, in over 15 years of following cases similar to this one (politicians, journalists, NGO workers, activists, etc.), of any case where a trial judge declares someone innocent,” Gonzalez-Davidson said.

The court summoned him for his trial, but despite his willingness to attend, the Cambodian government has refused to grant him a visa since deporting him in 2015.

Gonzalez-Davidson said this may be a strategy to reduce domestic and international criticism, and used the opportunity to call for the pardon of the three activists who were jailed for the same crime.

Those Cambodian activists, and their colleagues in the field, continue to face grave dangers in their pursuit to protect the environment

A dam built by Chinese-owned Union Development Group turned a small river in Koh Kong into a large lake that flooded villagers’ farmland. Image by Andrew Nachemson.

In Koh Kong, some 210 kilometers (130 miles) west of the capital, MNC activist Lim Kimsor pointed out spots where villages had been replaced by development projects, as the car rumbled down unpaved roads.

“This used to be a village, now it’s for sand-dredging,” said Kimsor, who also goes by “Gigi.”

“That was a river going through farmland. Now it’s a small dam,” she said a few minutes later.

Koh Kong, one of Cambodia’s most untouched provinces, is under dual threat from a Chinese development company and a ruling party senator, Ly Yong Phat, nicknamed “the King of Koh Kong.”

In 2008, Chinese-owned Union Development Group (UDG) was granted 36,000 hectares (89,000 acres) of land inside a national park for 99 years. The concession was three times the legal limit and included 20 percent of Cambodia’s total coastline. Farther north, Ly Yong Phat has carved out his own personal sand-dredging fiefdom.

Gigi works with villagers in Koh Kong who are embroiled in land disputes with UDG. Many of them have been forced off their land and given what they feel is inadequate compensation. Some have had their homes burned to the ground, according to local human rights observers. Others report experiencing brutality at the hands of soldiers hired as security by UDG.

The UDG project is meant to include a deep-water port, a resort and casino, Cambodia’s largest runway, and many other yet unidentified projects. The United States is concerned that the project may have military designs. The size and certain characteristics of the runway in particular have caught the attention of military experts.

The massive airstrip under construction within the UDG concession. Image by Andrew Nachemson.

This month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Cambodia and China had signed a secret agreement to allow Chinese navy presence at a base in Preah Sihanouk, the neighboring province. Chinese development there has also caused severe environmental damage and violent land disputes due to skyrocketing property costs.

Gigi’s own family was forced off their land in Phnom Penh in 2007 to make way for a skyscraper, inspiring a lifetime of fighting against environmental damage and injustice.

In 2014, she joined massive protests in Koh Kong’s Areng Valley, which successfully prevented the construction of a Chinese dam. In a movement reminiscent of the Standing Rock protests, MNC activists and others blocked the road for six months, according to Gonzalez-Davidson.

“I worked close with the community in that time,” Gigi said, explaining that she helped them coordinate resistance campaigns and brought youth from Phnom Penh to join the protests and learn more about the Areng Valley.

Those demonstrations drew the ire of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who ordered Gonzalez-Davidson deported.

“I don’t really have any risk except I have this massive challenge of not being allowed in the country,” Gonzalez-Davidson said, adding that authorities would be too hesitant to kill or imprison a European citizen.

He said local activists take far more risks, facing pressure from local officials, arrest, and sometimes even death.

“I’m worried about [being] arrested because I think if the government arrest me then nobody can help the people in the community,” Gigi said.

Gigi often drives her motorbike long distances in Koh Kong by herself. She knows she’s vulnerable to traffic accidents or something more sinister, saying that powerful people have a reason to silence her.

Gigi says she refuses to give in to fear. “What I’m scared of more than this is losing the community, the environment, the natural resources in my country,” she said.

Rampant Chinese construction in Sihanoukville has also caused environmental damage. Image by Andrew Nachemson.

Cambodia’s elites have frequently been accused of exploiting the country’s natural resources for their own benefit — and nowhere is that more apparent than in the sand-dredging industry.

Dredging boats congregate in Koh Kong’s rivers and coastlines, extracting sand for export to countries like Singapore for reclamation and construction. Highly valuable silica sand is also mined from the ground.

The government initially defended this practice by saying there was “too much sand” in the estuaries and rivers. While Hun Sen has repeatedly ordered an end to the practice, evidence suggests it continues.

In 2014 Cambodia reported exporting only 32,400 tonnes of sand to Singapore, but Singapore’s import records show nearly 17 million tonnes of sand coming in.

Cambodian customs data also show only 4,900 tonnes of sand sent to Taiwan in 2016, while Taiwan received 535,246 tones that same year.

The practice has had devastating environmental impacts, destroying mangrove forests, decimating fish catch, and collapsing inhabited riverbanks.

In September 2017, MNC activists Hun Vannak and Dim Kundy were arrested after filming sand-dredging vessels belonging to Ly Yong Phat. The men served five months in prison for “incitement” and unauthorized recording.

“It’s really bad, every jail in Cambodia has too many people,” Vannak said. “Four by four meters [13 by 13 feet], more than 20 people sleeping on top of each other. Everyone has skin diseases.”

Vannak said he knows his activism is dangerous, but feels he doesn’t have any other choice.

“I know if I stop there will be a lot of injustice, a lot of natural destruction. So I could not live even if I had a good job, a lot of money, a family,” he said.

But Vannak wasn’t always so devoted. A former supporter of Hun Sen, he says he didn’t become curious about activism until after Gonzalez-Davidson was deported.

“I really wanted to know why the government decided to kick out the foreigner who wanted to protect Cambodia,” Vannak said. He traveled to the Areng Valley and learned about government corruption and complicity in environmental crimes.

After this trip, he decided to become more involved, organizing other youths to oppose the Don Sahong dam on the Laos side of the Cambodian border, he recalls. On July 8, 2016, he met with renowned grassroots political activist Kem Ley for advocacy advice. Two days later, Ley was assassinated.

“After that I quit my job and decided to become a full-time activist,” Vannak said.

The sun sets over the Dara Sakor resort within the UDG concession. Image by Andrew Nachemson.

Illegal logging has also ravaged Cambodia’s jungles, with the country experiencing one of the highest deforestation rates on the planet. NASA satellite imagery revealed that Cambodia lost 1.44 million hectares (3.56 million acres) of tree cover between 2001 and 2014.

In 2017, the Environmental Investigation Agency found timber was still being illegally smuggled to Vietnam on an “unprecedented” scale, estimating that 300,000 cubic meters of wood had crossed the border in less than five months.

Corrupt officials and politically connected tycoons benefit from this devastating racket, while those who try to stop them often end up dead. In 2012, beloved environmental activist Chut Wutty was killed in Koh Kong during a confrontation with military police personnel hired as security by a logging company.

Just as Vannak was inspired by Ley’s murder, Gonzalez-Davidson was motivated to honor Wutty’s memory.

“I quit my job in the private sector and I got involved the day I heard Chut Wutty had been killed,” Gonzalez-Davidson said.

He said Wutty’s death is a lesson that it’s safer for the activists to confront the “system” rather than individual loggers or poachers in the wilderness.

“If you go into the forest and start taking pictures they will not use the system to fight you,” he said.

This has been proven true time and again since Wutty’s death. In 2015, a forestry ranger and a police officer were killed while investigating illegal logging in Preah Vihear. A Cambodian soldier was among those arrested for the murders.

In January 2018, two forestry officials and a military police escort were killed in a shootout with Cambodian border officials moonlighting as illegal loggers.

Besides frequent connections to the military, illegal logging has also been linked to ruling party senator Mong Reththy and a close Hun Sen ally, tycoon Try Pheap.

Six MNC activists have also been jailed in the last four years. Gonzalez-Davidson said the environmental defenders face “constant psychological pressure” from friends, family, colleagues and authorities who want them to quit their activism.

Activists like Gigi often record videos exposing government complicity in environmental damage. The clips are shared widely on Facebook, where some videos have as many as 2.1 million views.

“The moment they appear in a video the wolves start coming,” Gonzalez-Davidson said, claiming the government runs a “well-oiled machine of threatening.”

“I was followed around for quite a long time, they always knew where I was and they were listening to our conversations on the phone,” he added.

While Gonzalez-Davidson said he believes many officials, especially local officials, support MNC’s mission, he said the “culture of paranoia” forces them to intimidate activists on behalf of the central government.

Villagers protesting UDG outside the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh are surrounded by police. Image by Andrew Nachemson.

In Koh Kong, Gigi met with displaced villagers at a roadside shop that serves as a pit stop for resting travelers. A young boy grilled corn while his parents sold drinks and other snacks. The back door opened to a dirt yard where small chicks followed their mother as green mountains fanned out in the distance.

The family opened the small store to try to recuperate the economic losses from their seized farmland.

“She lived near the airport,” Gigi explained after speaking to one of the villagers in Khmer. “There used to be so many fruit trees. Pineapple, jackfruit, durian, coconut. But they clear them all.”

After a few minutes of conversation, a man came over and began taking pictures before walking off to make a phone call.

“Police,” one of the villagers whispered.

The same villagers staged protests in Phnom Penh earlier that week at the Ministry of Land Management and the Chinese Embassy. Those at the Chinese Embassy were soon surrounded by dozens of police and forcibly removed.

The desolate area where the airport is being built now more closely resembles a post-apocalyptic wasteland than a lush forest interspersed with orchards.

Gigi said a representative from UDG once contacted to her to claim that the area had always been devoid of trees.

“I told him I saw the old satellite images on Google Maps and then he never texted me again,” she said.

Vannak called the Cambodian government a “mafia” of people who will sell anything they can for personal profit.

“It’s not easy to protect all of it, but we are trying our best,” he said.

He called the court decision finding Gonzalez-Davidson not guilty “amazing,” but inconsistent with the decision to jail the three other activists.

“I thought that Alex would be found guilty so they can threaten him next time to warn him not to come in Cambodia,” Vannak said, adding that it’s impossible to anticipate Cambodian courts because they don’t rule according to the law.

“They just want to intimidate activists and protect and help the companies,” he said.

Banner image: Villagers protesting UDG outside the Chinese Embassy hold up signs and chant into a megaphone, by Andrew Nachemson.

Andrew Nachemson is an award winning journalist based in Phnom Penh. Find him on Twitter @ANachemson.

Correction: this story was updated to correct the year of Chut Wutty’s death.

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