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Goldman Prize-winning Cambodian activist arrested, released in Cambodia

A recent photo of Cambodian forest defender Ouch Leng. Photo courtesy Ouch Leng.

  • Leading Cambodian forest defender Ouch Leng and three others were arrested in mid-March and questioned after a South Korean company they accuse of illegal logging filed a complaint with the police.
  • The company says the activists were trespassing; the activists say the company is plundering part of the Prey Lang forest and that one of them was beaten by security guards.
  • Although released, the activists fear further retribution for their work monitoring economic land concessions near the forest.

Four Cambodian forest defenders were arrested and questioned by a provincial court earlier this month on allegations that they trespassed on the grounds of a South Korean-owned company, Think Biotech, that they say has been plundering resources from the Prey Lang forest area.

The activists, who have since been released from police custody, said they were beaten by the company’s private security guards outside a sawmill in Kratie province, east of the capital, Phnom Penh. Prey Lang forest spans four provinces, but its designated protected wildlife area remains at risk from illegal logging.

Among the activists is Ouch Leng, founder of the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force and 2016 recipient of the Asian portion of the Goldman Environmental Prize for his undercover work exposing corruption and illegal logging.

In an email to Mongabay on March 19, Ouch said that a week earlier, on March 13, he and his fellow activists had been planning to enter a sawmill that they allege is operated by a Think Biotech-linked company called Angkor Plywood, but that they were stopped while going to buy water near the entrance.

Ouch said they had been treated fairly until two other security guards approached them and started to beat his colleague, Man Mat.

He said he “was almost smashed down by security when I took video of [the] violence.” Ouch said he was instead dragged away by another guard.

He added the police failed to follow up on their complaints of the violence. Instead, Ouch and his colleagues were taken to court for questioning and later detained. They were released on March 16.

“This is the systematic and organized forest crime in a commercial and industrial timber business with corruption and collusion of all level of authorities including the court played role as a tool of company, they filed criminal action against me for the sake of company but for violence case, they tried to ignore it,” Ouch said in the email.

A forest in Cambodia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
A forest in Cambodia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

According to local human rights group Licadho, “Think Biotech, which has been granted a 34,000-hectare (84,000-acre) concession, has been repeatedly accused by local communities of illegally harvesting timber within the protected forest as well as resin trees owned by local villagers.”

Cambodia’s land law, passed in 2001, makes it illegal for economic land concessions to exceed 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres), but this provision has been regularly flouted; companies have been known to create subsidiaries or proxy companies that are then granted their own 10,000-hectare plots, thus enabling the parent company to occupy far more land than is allowed.

In a statement sent to Mongabay on March 23, Goldman Prize executive director Michael Sutton said that forest monitoring in Cambodia is still extremely dangerous.

“We strongly condemn the arrest of Ouch Leng and his colleagues, who are doing critical work to protect Prey Lang from poachers and conserve Cambodia’s rich but receding biodiversity,” Sutton said.

“Ouch and others are bravely staring down the forces of greed and corruption that are ravaging the country’s natural resources — work that is important and extremely dangerous in that economic and political context. The right thing is for authorities to support their environmental work rather than reducing it to the level of criminality. Protecting the forests is not a crime.”

In a statement, natural resource watchdog Global Witness alleged that Lu Chu Chang, the director of both Think Biotech and Angkor Plywood, has been linked to illegal logging as far back as 2001, and that the arrest of the four men “raises the question of why the Cambodian government is defending the interests of a firm that has faced credible accusations of illegal logging and whose director has a long association with forest destruction in Cambodia.”

Lu Chu Chang did not respond to a request for comment by the time this article was published, and calls to the company’s office in Phnom Penh went unanswered.

Environmental activism in Cambodia has become increasingly dangerous since 2012, when leading forest defender Chut Wutty was shot and killed while assisting two reporters from The Cambodia Daily newspaper in a remote part of Koh Kong province.

Banner image: A recent photo of Cambodian forest defender Ouch Leng. Photo courtesy Ouch Leng.

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