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‘Thousands of trees’ burned and logged in Cambodia: Q&A with filmmaker Sean Gallagher

  • In 2020, filmmaker Sean Gallagher released a short film titled “Cambodia Burning,” which looks at the burning and logging of Cambodia’s forests to make way for agricultural development.
  • The Cambodian government has claimed that no large-scale deforestation is happening in the country’s protected areas, but Gallagher says he filmed illegal logging taking place directly inside the confines of Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary.
  • Cambodia lost an estimated 2.7 million hectares (6.7 million acres) of forest between 2001 and 2019, accounting for 26.4% of the forest cover that existed in 2000, according to a new report.
  • Activists working to protect Cambodia’s remaining forests have faced threats, intimidation and incarceration.

In January 2020, filmmaker Sean Gallagher traveled to Cambodia with a camera, drone, and a mission: to create a film revealing the impacts of deforestation. Riding on the backs of motorbikes driven by local activists, Gallagher spent several weeks venturing deep into protected forests in Cambodia to film bulldozers pushing down trees, and intentionally lit fires, turning the land into a charred, barren wasteland.

“The official line is that there isn’t any large-scale deforestation happening at the moment in protected areas,” said Gallagher, referring to claims made this year by the Cambodian government’s Ministry of Environment. But Gallagher said he got most of his footage either directly inside or next to two protected areas in Cambodia: Beng Per Wildlife Sanctuary and Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary.

“We discovered logging yards where there were thousands upon thousands of trees that have been cut down,” Gallagher said. “I was able to get pictures, and footage of that and those images and the video footage [are] some of the first … to document some of this large-scale logging which is taking place within these protected areas.”

With a grant from the Pulitzer Center, Gallagher created a short film, titled Cambodia Burning, shot entirely by drone. In the six and a half minutes, the viewer is shown how the forest is being destroyed by chainsaws, excavators and fires. In one clip, the drone camera hovers above a man using a machete to chop down the last tree in a desolate landscape. These scenes of devastation are contrasted with the flyovers of intact forests and sound clips of birdsong.

Official statistics give context to Gallagher’s film. According to a recent report released by the Land Portal Foundation, Cambodia lost an estimated 2.7 million hectares (6.7 million acres) of forest between 2001 and 2019 — an area a fifth the size of Florida — accounting for 26.4% of the forest cover that existed in 2000. Data collected by Global Forest Watch also showed that Cambodia lost 557,000 hectares (1.38 million acres) of tree cover specifically in protected areas between 2001 and 2018, constituting an 11.7% loss.

Aerial view of burning land near the Phnom Tnout Wildlife Sanctuary, Preah Vihear Province, northern Cambodia. During the dry season between January to March, hundreds of fires continually rage across the country. Land is burnt by farmers, loggers and local people looking to either capture wildlife or clear land for agriculture. Image © Sean Gallagher.

One of the main drivers of deforestation in Cambodia is the government’s move to grant economic land concessions to agro-industrial groups within the country and abroad. Other contributing factors include the expansion of smallholder farms, illegal logging for high-quality timber, and even garment factories, many of which burn illegal forest wood to keep the electricity running.

But Gallagher chose not to just present the cold, hard statistics in his film. Instead, he worked with a poet to delve into the emotional side of deforestation and trigger a response in the viewer.

“I wanted to try to do something that was much deeper and much more emotional,” Gallagher said. “I wanted to try to capture the audience’s attention. And one of my ideas to do that was to use poetry.”

Gallagher said that both the poet and narrator he worked with chose to stay anonymous due to safety concerns. “Cambodia is still a very dangerous place for people who raise awareness about the issues connected to deforestation,” he said.

Earlier this year, officials arrested four activists, including Ouch Leng, a 2016 recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, merely for entering Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary. Their alleged crime was hanging saffron Buddhist robes on trees and banners that read “Help preserve our ancestral heritage forest.” For Leng, this was his second arrest in 12 months.

Gallagher’s film was named the best short film at last year’s Earth Photo competition, was highly commended by the Drone Photo awards, and was a finalist in this year’s Social Impact Media Awards (SIMA). On the other hand, his film received criticism from Cambodia’s environment ministry, which said that it gave undue credit to activists and overlooked officials from the environment ministry who were doing the work of conserving the country’s forests. But Gallagher has not been discouraged by this disapproval.

“Receiving that criticism from the government actually drew even more attention to the film,” Gallagher said, “so in a way that was quite pleasing to me because it managed to bring even more of an audience to the film and subsequently highlight the issue even more.”

Mongabay’s Elizabeth Claire Alberts spoke with Gallagher in November. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: How did your work in Cambodia start?

Sean Gallagher: My work over the past 15 years has been really focused on the climate crisis and environmental issues, such as biodiversity loss and the effects of industrial pollution and rising sea levels. I really wanted to work on a story about what was happening in Southeast Asia, and I felt that the story of deforestation was often focused on places like Brazil or in Africa, but Southeast Asia was often overlooked. So I was looking for a story in Southeast Asia that had real visual potential.

I came across a news article reporting about how the forest fires that are burning every spring in Cambodia could be seen from space. It was reported that Cambodia had the highest number of fires out of any country in Southeast Asia. So I thought, “Wow, this story probably has real visual potential if I can be there on the ground and try to photograph this issue.” I thought it could make for really interesting pictures and potentially a powerful film, even though at that time I didn’t know what kind of film I was going to make.

Mongabay: How do these fires ignite?

Sean Gallagher: The beginning of the year is the dry season in Cambodia. So that tends to be the time that people are lighting fires, whether it’s farmers clearing some of their lands or people using the fire to both clear agricultural land but also to clear land that has been deforested. The edges of the forest are often the most vulnerable places to deforestation, so those are getting eaten away. The trees would be cut down and they would burn the land in order to clear it further. Then they would dig out the stumps, and the land would be free to be turned into new agricultural land. When I was there, I saw the fires happening all around the edges of the forests that were remaining in Cambodia.

A burnt out forest in the Phnom Tnout Phnom Pok Wildlife Sanctuary, in northern Cambodia. Fires are set by farmers, loggers and local people looking to either capture wildlife or clear land for agriculture. Image © Sean Gallagher.

Mongabay: Is a lot of this deforestation happening under the radar?

Sean Gallagher: I think it’s difficult to know the exact picture of the state of Cambodia’s forests. The official line is that there isn’t any large-scale deforestation happening at the moment in protected areas. But when I was there in early 2020, I discovered illegal logging taking place within some of the supposedly protected areas such as the Prey Lang forest, which is a very high-profile area at the moment. I traveled with many of the local community rangers in the Prey Lang Community Network into the deepest of forests on patrols for a few days and discovered logging taking place, both on a small scale seemingly by individuals, but also we discovered logging yards where there were thousands upon thousands of trees that have been cut down. I was able to get pictures and footage of that and those images and the video footage are some of the first to document some of this large-scale logging which is taking place within these protected areas.

Mongabay: Was it difficult to get this footage?

Sean Gallagher: Well, it was very challenging to get to some of these places because a lot of the logging was taking place deep in the forest, so I had to travel with local people who had local knowledge as to where the logging was taking place. Many of the people who live in and around forests like Prey Lang know this is happening. They see it happening all the time. So they led me to some of these places. We camped in the forests overnight and we were traveling on motorbikes off-road through some pretty difficult terrain. But I think it was well worth it because of the unique features that I was able to capture and the things that I was able to document.

Mongabay: How many different sites did you film?

Sean Gallagher: I spent my time mainly in two places. The first place was Beng Per Wildlife Sanctuary, which is a few hours north of Phnom Penh, so it’s kind of north-central Cambodia. And then I spent the other half of my time in and around Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary.

Members of the Prey Lang Community Rangers, a group of local farmers, in the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, during one of their regular patrols in the forest monitoring illegal logging. Prey Lang is one of Asia’s most threatened evergreen woodlands, totalling over 3,500 square kilometres in size. Illegal logging and clearance of forest for agriculture continue to threaten the last remaining pockets of forest in central Cambodia. Image © Sean Gallagher.

Mongabay: You worked with a poet for your film — why did you choose to do this?

Sean Gallgaher: When I was in the field shooting and gathering footage, I quickly realized that I didn’t want to tell the story in a traditional way as a traditional documentary film. Many people have done documentaries about deforestation with talking heads and those are fine, but I wanted to try to do something that was much deeper and much more emotional. I wanted to try to capture the audience’s attention. And one of my ideas was to use poetry. And so I decided to commission a Cambodian writer to work with me to produce a script for the film. After I’d finished all the shooting, I put together a rough draft of the film — just visually — and then I showed it to the writer. And I said, “Look at this footage. I’d like you to write from a Cambodian person’s perspective. How this makes you feel? I don’t want you to think about statistics. I don’t want you to think about figures. I just want you to tell me how it feels and what this actually means to you to see these changes.”

Mongabay: Why has the poet stayed anonymous in the film?

Sean Gallagher: In the final film, I decided to keep the identities of the Cambodian people that I worked with anonymous because Cambodia is still a very dangerous place for people who raise awareness about the issues connected to deforestation. And for this reason, I didn’t want to jeopardize the safety of the people that I worked with by revealing their identities.

Mongabay: What kind of obstacles do forest activists face in Cambodia?

Sean Gallagher: The authorities have really been cracking down on local groups, working within some of the nature reserves like Prey Lang. Local people are not allowed to go into the forest to do any kind of monitoring, perform any kind of surveys on the levels of deforestation or the activities of people within the forest. So there’s been a huge crackdown by the authorities on local people, such as Prey Lang Community Network, the group that I worked with, and there’s been continued intimidation of many of those local activists who’ve been threatened or put in temporary detention.

But the people that I met — the people that helped me when I was there — were some of the bravest and most dedicated people that I’ve met because they are doing it, knowing the risks that they face. And many activists in the past have been intimidated, threatened, and some have even been killed in Cambodia because of the work that they do. So I was very lucky that they welcomed me and helped me as much as they did in allowing me to be able to get to the places that I needed to get to make the pictures that I would have wanted to make.

Sean Gallagher with military policemen after conducting a logging patrol near the Phnom Tnout Phnom Pok wildlife sanctuary, Cambodia, 2020. Image © Sean Gallagher.

Mongabay: Are activists receiving opposition from loggers or the government — or both? 

Sean Gallagher: Well, on a local level, the people who are doing the deforestation do not want their activities highlighted, so if they see any activists in the area, they will try to intimidate them. In one instance, when we were photographing in Prey Lang forest where I was getting some drone footage of one of the logging yards, I managed to launch the drone and shot for about 15 minutes. Some of the people from the logging yard had seen the drone and they came to us and they were very agitated, very angry, and the local people that I was working with notified me that we really had to leave because these people from the logging yard were starting to get very angry and threaten our group. So we jumped on the motorbikes and sped away and they chased us for a while to make sure that we were leaving the area. That’s very typical.

On a larger scale, it’s the government that is trying to stop many of these local activists from going into the forest because the activists are independently monitoring forest crimes and sharing their findings online. This has led to many of the local activists being arrested, harassed and intimidated. Cambodian journalists and international journalists have linked the deforestation that’s happening in Cambodia’s forests directly to the government and people within the government and businesses, business owners who have connections to the government. So this is the main reason why the government doesn’t want these independent activists to go into the forest and to report what’s happening and to share their findings through social media — because it’s something that they don’t want people to know about.

Mongabay: Why are activists ending up in jail?

Sean Gallagher: Well, one of the newest rules or laws that has been introduced in the past year and a half is that many of the activists are forbidden to go into some of these protected areas. So a lot of the activists are ignoring these warnings and just going back into these protected areas, then often are put into jail for a given amount of time, warned not to do it again, intimidated, threatened, and then released afterward. I suppose authorities are hoping that the warnings have had some kind of effect, but the activists that I’ve met when I was in Cambodia struck me as very determined, and a lot of these warnings and threats haven’t affected many of the very dedicated ones who continue to try to go into the forest and to keep telling the story about what’s happening there.

A logging operation in north-central Cambodia. The government has sold concessions to national and international companies, giving them permission to clear the ‘protected’ forests of Cambodia. Image © Sean Gallagher.

Mongabay: What kind of impacts are deforestation and fires having on the environment and local people in Cambodia?

Sean Gallagher: Cambodia’s got some of the highest rates of deforestation in the world now. So obviously with that loss of forest, you’re seeing a huge decline in biodiversity — many species are being wiped out every year as the forest is converted into farmland and plantations. And you’re still seeing large levels of poverty in the countryside in Cambodia. One of the official lines is that with deforestation, at least money’s being made from the exploitation of the forest. But local people complain that a lot of that wealth is not filtering down to normal Cambodian people. At the same time, as they’re losing all their biodiversity.

Mongabay: How has your film been received so far?

Sean Gallagher: The film, I think, is probably the project that has received the most attention out of most of my projects over the past four or five years. And I think mainly, it’s down to the way that film was shot — it was shot entirely by drone footage. That was an aesthetic choice that I wanted to make as a filmmaker, so it’s quite unique in that respect. And then also, as we mentioned, the use of Cambodian poetry.

It’s being screened at environmental film festivals, and it’s got a lot of attention online. And so the reception has been really good … but the film has also been criticized by the Cambodian government. The film was featured in the Phnom Penh Post in November of last year, and it was criticized in the print paper and online, saying that it unfairly depicted what was happening to the forests in Cambodia, which was a strange criticism because it is an accurate reflection of what’s happening in Cambodia. Receiving that criticism from the government actually drew even more attention to the film, so in a way that was quite pleasing to me because it managed to bring even more of an audience to the film and subsequently highlight the issue even more.

Mongabay: Are you planning to do more work in Cambodia?

Sean Gallagher: Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m welcome back in Cambodia anytime soon because of the criticism my film received from the government. It’s definitely a story I’d like to continue, but I probably will go to other places in Southeast Asia and try to tell more of a story about what is happening when some of the high-value wood is being exported out of Cambodia — where they’re going and what’s happening to them. That’s something that I’d like to pursue, perhaps when travel gets back to normal here in Asia.

Cleared forests in Preah Vihear Province, in northern Cambodia near the border with Loas. Most of the land Cambodia’s forests once occupied have been sold by the government for agricultural concessions. Image © Sean Gallagher.

Banner image: Sean Gallagher controlling a drone while documenting logging and forest fires in the Beng Per Wildlife Sanctuary in northern Cambodia, 2020. Image © Sean Gallagher.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: Hear reporter Gerald Flynn discuss deforestation issues associated with Cambodia’s Koh Kong region, listen here:

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