- Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary is a protected area in eastern Cambodia and is home to some of the country’s last large tracts of old-growth rainforest, as well as endangered wildlife and Indigenous communities.
- Like many of Cambodia’s protected areas, Prey Lang is beset by Illegal logging; satellite data show deforestation, which dropped for two years after Prey Lang was gazetted as a protected area in 2016, has been rising quickly since 2019.
- Sources say timber companies are behind the illegal logging in Prey Lang, and that the situation is being facilitated by government corruption and international complicity.
- Meanwhile, environmental activists say they are being jailed for documenting illegal logging operations in Prey Lang and silenced when speaking out against deforestation.
“It was the same court, the same actors, the same script — it was just like the sequel,” laughed Ouch Leng as he recounted what is now his second arrest in 12 months.
As one of Cambodia’s most prominent environmental activists and a Goldman Environmental Prize winner, Leng says he has become a target for the authorities, and his arrest on Feb. 5, 2021, was a mirror image of his previous arrest on March 13, 2020.
“I only care about forest crimes, not my misdemeanors,” said Leng, whose most recent arrest in Kratie province came after he and four other activists attempted to raise awareness about deforestation in Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary.
According to Leng, he and four other activists — Heng Sros, Men Math, Heng Run and Choup Cheang — had entered the protected area of Prey Lang and had been hanging saffron Buddhist robes on trees, along with banners that read “Help preserve our ancestral heritage forest.” But on the morning of Feb. 5, a team of private security guards surrounded the activists.
“I don’t know how many there were, I saw 10 motorbikes, but they just drove around us, taking photos and showing off their guns,” Leng said.
Leng recalled that not long after, a seven-person team of Environment Ministry forest rangers came bearing weapons and, without asking a single question, seized phones, cameras and GPS devices from Leng and his team before taking the activists to the nearest ranger station.
“It wasn’t violent, they know who we are and we know them, but it was just aggressive,” Leng said.
All five activists were released on Feb. 8, but a representative from local human rights group ADHOC said they remain under court supervision and were forced to thumb-print documents forbidding them from further investigating illegal logging in Prey Lang.
Illegal logging in Prey Lang continues to rise
Officially spanning 431,683 hectares (1.07 million acres) across Kampong Thom, Preah Vihear, Stung Treng and Kratie provinces, Prey Lang was designated a wildlife sanctuary by the Cambodian government in 2016. That same year, some 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres) of forest cover was lost, mostly to illegal logging.
While forest loss dipped somewhat in 2017, with nearly 6,000 hectares (14,800 acres) lost, the rate of deforestation has rapidly started to climb back up again. Over the course of 2019, Prey Lang lost 7,570 hectares (18,700 acres) of forest according to a report released by the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) and the University of Copenhagen on Feb. 27, 2021, nearly doubling the amount lost in 2018. Preliminary data from the University of Maryland (UMD) suggest the deforestation rate in Prey Lang surged even higher in 2020.
The report states that the Forest Canopy Disturbance Monitoring (FCDM) tool developed by the EU’s Joint Research Centre found disturbances that affected an area of 10,233 hectares (25,286 acres) between June 2019 and June 2020. However, the report cautioned that these are conservative estimates, given that cloud coverage typically delays satellites from reporting when tree cover loss occurred.
With that in mind, the PLCN has documented 296 events related to illegal activities during that time span — 99% of which they claim were illegal logging. Meanwhile, they attributed the majority of other events to traditional uses of natural resources by members of the Kuy Indigenous group, who number around 250,000 and have lived in Prey Lang for generations.
Dimitris Argyriou, a project and data manager affiliated with the University of Copenhagen, said that between February 2020 and February 2021, some 116,000 Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) deforestation alerts were detected in Prey Lang by UMD; he has since built a publicly accessible map that tracks UMD tree cover loss data in Kratie province. Argyriou’s decision to monitor GLAD alerts starting in February last year is no coincidence — it was the same month that the Cambodian government banned the PLCN from patrolling Prey Lang’s protected areas.
UMD data visualized on the forest monitoring platform Global Forest Watch show forest loss in Prey Lang is currently spiking once again, with nearly 27,000 GLAD deforestation alerts recorded in the first two weeks of March 2021. According to Global Forest Watch, this level of deforestation is “unusually high” compared to years past.
Argyriou also noted that while the government had finally gotten around to registering Prey Lang with the U.N.’s World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA) in May 2020, the protected status conferred on the forest made no difference in 2016 and he warned against expecting WDPA recognition to prevent further logging.
Cambodian environmental defenders ‘criminalized’
“They try to say I’m a guerrilla, that I’m an opponent of the government, but they always say the same thing,” said Leng, who added he thought the orchestrated campaign against the PLCN was odd given that the Ministry of Environment frequently asks him and the PLCN for data and consults with them on wildlife conservation issues.
“There’s a lot of pressure from the government,” he added. “They use the courts to stop us from going into Prey Lang, they try to cut off our access to funding, but they’re afraid of me because I will always report on forest crimes.” Claiming that Leng and the PLCN had “malicious intentions” rather than a genuine desire to protect the forest, Ministry of Environment spokesperson Neth Pheaktra said that environmentalists should not be protected because they have broken the law, even going so far as to suggest Leng and other activists have a political agenda.
Pheaktra also denounced the repeated entries into Prey Lang that Leng claims were done to gather evidence against companies behind illegal logging.
“These acts are just embarrassing,” said Pheaktra, who suggested that Leng and the PLCN are only engaged in activism for the money.
But few, domestically or internationally, appear to be convinced of the sincerity of Cambodia’s Environment Ministry when it comes to protecting Prey Lang.
“The Ministry of Environment doesn’t have the willingness to protect the forest, they are dishonest about their role,” a representative of the PLCN told Mongabay in an email.
The representative, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the ban on PLCN patrols of the forest has led to an accelerated rate of logging — a claim supported by Argyriou, the PLCN’s own report and Leng’s findings — adding that international donors weren’t doing enough to address what amounted to government-sponsored logging operations in Prey Lang.
With a $21 million budget, consultancy firm Tetra Tech is implementing the USAID-funded Greening Prey Lang Project alongside the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Conservation International. What has been one of the most visible attempts to conserve Prey Lang, however, appears to have done little to stop the ongoing destruction of the protected area. Community organizations, activists and academics all agree that the project has done little beyond legitimizing the Ministry of Environment’s corruption.
“By silently approving the intimidation and de-legitimization of PLCN, USAID and Tetra Tech are sabotaging the efforts of existing local and indigenous grassroots groups to conduct crucial forest monitoring,” the PLCN wrote in its latest report, which was produced with support from the University of Copenhagen.
Ida Theilade, a professor at the University of Copenhagen who has studied Prey Lang for many years, said Cambodia initially exceeded international conservation recommendations by putting 40% of its land area under official protection. However, the Ministry of Environment subsequently earmarked much of this land for development by granting more than 100 economic land concessions (ELCs) inside protected areas by 2012.
“The Ministry of Environment has turned into a giant land bank for the rich and wealthy who can acquire ELCs through the [ministry] — it’s a massive state authorized land grab serving to enrich regime cronies while dispossessing local and indigenous peoples at a dramatic pace,” Theilade wrote in an email.
She called the inaction of USAID, Tetra Tech and its NGO partners an act of “willful blindness” and condemned their continued cooperation with the Ministry of Environment, particularly following the ban on PLCN patrols in Prey Lang’s protected area.
Neither WCS nor Conservation International responded to Mongabay’s requests for comment, while Tetra Tech referred reporters to USAID. USAID Cambodia said it remains concerned about both the arrests of peaceful activists and the ongoing deforestation in Prey Lang, adding it has offered to mediate between the PLCN and the Ministry of Environment.
“Forest loss in Prey Lang, and throughout the country, is linked to a number of factors such as weak law enforcement and opaque governance systems,” USAID Cambodia wrote in an email. “The United States believes that the effective management of Cambodia’s protected areas requires competent, accountable, and inclusive government agencies.”
On March 5, one month after Leng’s most recent arrest, 110 academics and environmentalists wrote to Environment Minister Say Samal and USAID Cambodia director Veena Reddy calling for an end to illegal logging in Cambodia’s protected areas and the judicial harassment of activists who report it.
The letter accused USAID Cambodia of being complicit in the destruction of Prey Lang by not withdrawing funding even when “evidence of egregious violations of national laws and international frameworks are irrefutably evident.”
Similarly, the letter’s authors asked whether the Ministry of Environment would acknowledge deforestation within the protected areas, shut down the sawmills within them and allow the public to participate in the conservation of Prey Lang. They also demanded that corruption among provincial departments be investigated.
Environment Ministry spokesperson Neth Pheaktra hit back at the authors, saying that the “Ministry of Environment does not need to respond to them.”
He then went on to accuse the authors of the letter, which include Argyriou and Theilade, of orchestrating a campaign against Cambodia.
“Their reports [sic] is only presented in only negative points,” Pheaktra said. “They think that only their group is the only natural resources protector. In reality, they just want to cause conflict, create anarchy and continue to encourage law abuses.”
‘A cancer on the forest’
Sources say a key driver behind the continued logging in Prey Lang is the relationships that the companies granted ELCs enjoy, not just with the government, but also with one another.
Leng said that before their arrest, he and his team had been investigating a particular area of illegal logging since Feb. 3, gathering evidence against Angkor Plywood, Think Biotech and Thy Nga — three interconnected companies that Leng and others allege are engaged in and profiting from the destruction of Prey Lang.
Angkor Plywood is owned by Chu-Chang Lu, a Taiwanese national, along with Pov Chea and Sankthida Chea, both Cambodians. Sankthida Chea is a director at Think Biotech, where Lu is chairman of the board after the original South Korean owners left in 2017 and 2018. Pov Chea, meanwhile, is a director at Thy Nga, working alongside Rithy Leng, a powerful tycoon whose infamous rubber tree operations have been implicated in causing human rights abuses throughout Cambodia.
A representative of Angkor Plywood hung up on reporters when questions were asked regarding these allegations, while Thy Nga could not be reached for comment.
Lu, chairman of Think Biotech, emphatically denied the allegations, saying his company only uses second-, third- and fourth-grade timber rather than the luxury timber he has been accused of trafficking.
“If some local people do illegal logging, no-one can control them — they steal and they leave — we can’t even find the names of these people, but even when we get the names, the police don’t catch them, so people think we must do logging because so many local people are doing it,” Lu said.
“Why the police can’t investigate, I don’t know, we don’t control the government officials or the police — the private sector is very small, it doesn’t have the money or power like NGOs,” he said, adding that he estimated Think Biotech’s profits for 2020 to be in the region of $5 million.
He added that none of the people accusing him of illegal logging could produce any evidence.
When presented with a video taken by Leng that depicts a Think Biotech vehicle carrying what appears to be luxury timber, Lu paused before saying he knew nothing about this. Likewise he claimed to know nothing about a road, dotted with tree cover loss, that leads directly from Think Biotech’s concession into the protected area.
“Deforestation usually comes in waves,” said Marcus Hardtke, an expert who has worked on Cambodian forest issues since 1996 with several NGOs, including international watchdog Global Witness. “Usually it stops for a few months when it gets too much attention, but these companies — they’re a cancer on the forest and they just keep eating and eating away at it.”
Hardtke said Angkor Plywood, Think Biotech and Thy Nga were protected from on high, citing their connections to the networks of patronage that have kept Prime Minister Hun Sen in power for 36 years, and added that this was why activists like Leng are arrested so frequently.
“The Ministry of Environment wants complete control, they can’t stand that there are people running around Prey Lang highlighting all of these crimes,” he said, noting that the ministry is afraid of what will be uncovered.
Leng said the court confiscated his most recent evidence of incursions after he was arrested, but said he has captured a wealth of footage via camera traps that shows vehicles taking logs into Think Biotech’s compound and trucks bearing Think Biotech’s branding transporting the wood, often luxury timber, to Angkor Plywood.
The intertwined nature of the three companies operating in Prey Lang has given Angkor Plywood what Leng called a “monopoly on timber” that he said is being exported worldwide.
“When it’s all gone, they’ll blame it on the poor,” Leng said. “They’ll say there is no large-scale logging operation, when actually this monopoly is effectively a state-owned enterprise — donors need to stop providing money to this mafia.”
Rights advocates warned that attacks on human rights defenders like Leng have risen throughout Cambodia under the cover of the pandemic, with 26 incidents recorded by local human rights group LICADHO in the first nine months of 2020, up from 18 incidents in 2019.
Environmental activists, having operated within the government’s crosshairs for years, were among the hundreds who were arrested over the course of 2020 and now face vague “incitement” charges with sentences of up to 30 years behind bars.
Naly Pilorge, director of LICADHO, said recent years have seen an increase in the surveillance, harassment, assault and arrests of environmentalists as a means of stopping state-backed logging from being publicized.
This, she said, has allowed private sector actors with strong levels of governmental protection to extract short-term profits from Cambodia’s natural resources.
“Instead of recognizing and supporting the vital work of villagers and activists preserving the environment like in other countries, government authorities have obstructed, demonized and criminalized the work of these environmental defenders,” Pilorge said.
Three young activists, Thun Ratha, Long Kunthea and Phuong Keorasmey, were arrested on Sept. 3, 2020, for posting plans to walk across Phnom Penh to Hun Sen’s house where they hoped to discuss the government’s decision to fill in one of the city’s largest lakes.
As members of Mother Nature Cambodia, an outlawed environmental NGO, they were keenly attuned to governmental harassment. In June last year the activists had their bicycles confiscated and were questioned by authorities for hours as they attempted to cycle across the country to raise awareness about environmental destruction in Koh Kong province.
“When it comes to the arbitrary jailing and detention of innocent activists, the Ministry of Environment dares not raise its voice in the least, for obvious reasons,” said Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a co-founder of Mother Nature who is blacklisted from entering Cambodia.
“Truth is that the Ministry of Environment can’t and will not dare stand up to the very powerful syndicates that profit from logging, filling in lakes, selling off national parks,” he said, adding that economic and political reasons have made environmental defenders a target.
He also noted that Cambodian authorities are becoming more social media savvy and are using digital platforms to broadcast propaganda, drown out criticism, and manipulate messages as evidence in court when activists are detained.
International donors complicit
The PLCN acknowledges that its work has become more dangerous since the change in tactics on behalf of the government, a shift to what rights advocates have branded “lawfare” that has resulted in the judicial harassment of activists.
On Feb. 25, 2021, Amnesty International wrote a damning report on the loss of natural resources in Prey Lang and condemned the Cambodian government’s repressive use of the 2015 Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations.
“[T]he law has been overwhelmingly used to restrict the work of and punish independent and outspoken civil society actors,” the report reads, adding that the three jailed Mother Nature Cambodia activists were recognized as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International.
And while international organizations operating in Cambodia consistently stress the value of working with young people, particularly activists seeking to bring about positive change, critics say there has been little in the way of support offered to young Cambodians detained for their activism.
“Ouch Leng is internationally known and somewhat immune,” said Frédéric Bourdier, an anthropologist working at the French Research Institute for Development who was also a signatory to the March 5 letter. “But for the courageous people like Mother Nature [activists], there is no such protection, they’re totally vulnerable.”
Bourdier said the neglect on behalf of international donors funding conservation projects in Cambodia has forced smaller-scale activist groups to go unrecognized, unprotected and unrewarded for work that he describes as essential.
The arrests, Bourdier said, won’t stop activists. Instead, he said the harassment will likely make environmentalists more cautious and encourage them to band together outside the spheres of influence that NGOs and governments occupy.
“USAID are complicit in criminalizing local people, particularly these small groups of young people,” Bourdier added. “It’s not specific to Cambodia, but there is collusion between donors, governments and recipient organizations like Tetra Tech — it’s not just money, it’s legitimizing power for governments and how they work.”
Banner image: Ouch Leng nails a sign prohibiting logging in Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary. Image courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.
Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.
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