The latest crackdown on illegal logging in Cambodia is “just a game” and big timber traders are winning, says Leng Ouch, a former government official who has spent two decades helping poor villagers fight poaching of precious tropical forests.
Leng’s tenacious and perilous crusade to stop illegal logging and stop land concessions from forcing Cambodians out of their homes has won him a Goldman Environmental Prize, which honors grassroots environmental activism.
The award follows recent announcements that Cambodian authorities plan to expand protected areas of the Southeast Asian country’s forests by about a third. Long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen, whom many consider a backer of the biggest logging group, Try Pheap, recently said he had authorized rocket attacks on illegal loggers.
But Leng and other critics say reports of raids and other high-profile shows of force against illegal loggers belie the lack of arrests or prosecutions of those cutting and trading in illegal timber.
Asked if the crackdown is for real, he said, “It’s just a game.”
“Nobody was arrested. The media was set up,” Leng said during an interview. “The Ministry of the Environment doesn’t care. They never go inside the jungle to patrol or arrest illegal loggers.”
Much of the timber trade is protected by military units that profit from deals with the loggers, and the stakes of fighting it can be deadly. At least five deaths in Cambodia have been linked to illegal logging since 2007, including that of Leng’s fellow environmentalist Chut Wutthy, who was fatally shot in 2012 while showing journalists a logging camp in the southwest’s Koh Kong province.
It’s a risk shared with other environmental crusaders defying powerful companies and government backers around the world. Honduran indigenous leader and environmentalist Berta Caceres, a winner of a 2015 Goldman Prize, was killed by assailants who broke into her home last month. She had received death threats from police, soldiers and local landowners for her efforts to block construction of a dam.
Leng said he accepts the risks as part of his mission.
“I don’t expect the government to allow me to live long,” he said.
Leng wins $175,000 for this year’s Goldman Prize, as do five other winners.
The other winners
- Zuzana Caputova, a lawyer who led a campaign to shut down a toxic waste dump in Slovakia.
- Maxima Acuna, a Peruvian farmer fighting major mining companies’ efforts to take her land for a gold and copper mine.
- Destiny Watford, a Baltimore, Maryland, student who helped prevent construction of a trash incinerator in her area.
- Edward Loure, a Tanzanian communal land rights leader.
- Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera, who campaigned to create a nature peserve in Puerto Rico to protect endangered leatherback sea turtles.
Leng travels into the forest armed only with a camera and a GPS locator, tracking illegal loggers. At times he works undercover by cooking for loggers, hauling cargo on docks or posing as a tourist.
Showing determination early on, Leng excelled in his studies in mostly rural Takeo province. When his village chief denied him a permit to travel to Phnom Penh to take university exams, he says he hid on a sugar cane train to get to the city. After studying law, he was assigned to the Foreign Ministry, and later to the Ministry of Planning. Drawn into politics, he moved to a nongovernmental organization and began investigating illegal logging.
Marcus Hardtke, a German environmentalist who lives in Cambodia, says the prize is well-deserved.
“Ouch Leng is one of a handful of people fighting to stop forest destruction in Cambodia,” Hardtke said. “It is up to activists like Leng and affected local communities to make a stand against the short-sighted, greed-driven policies of the Phnom Penh elite. They are doing just that, often at great personal risk.”
Lately, Leng’s attention has focused on a conflict between local villagers and a Chinese company that is developing a massive resort on a choice swath of coastland near the Thai border in Koh Kong province.
Residents complain they were forced off their land and lost their main livelihood of fishing when they were relocated inland after the government granted a 99-year land lease to China’s Tianjin Union Development Group Co., which has built a golf resort and plans a yacht club, casino, villas and other luxury facilities.
“Before, those people could earn $2,500 a year, or about $100 a night fishing. Now they cannot fish because the Chinese company grabbed everything. They have nothing to eat,” Leng said.
The United Nations says land rights conflicts have become Cambodia’s No. 1 human rights issue. Land concessions have forced villagers to make way for plantations and other projects. Meant to promote development, such arrangements often have left communities worse off, critics say.
They’ve also accelerated the loss of precious, diverse forests of increasingly rare tropical timber, as loggers push ever deeper into protected areas and also clear-cut land of less valuable wood that is sometimes sold as fuel for factories.
Cambodia remained heavily forested until relatively recently, thanks in part to lingering battles with Khmer Rouge guerrillas and massive use of land mines during the Vietnam War.
As the economy opened in the early 1990s, investment from China poured in. Forest cover dropped to 48 percent in 2014 from 57 percent in 2010 and 73 percent in 1990, a loss of nearly 3 million hectares of tropical forest. Rosewood, known as “hongmu” in Chinese, is especially prized, and loggers can get $5,000 for a cubic meter of the brightly-hued timber.
Leng, who chairs the Cambodia Human Rights Task Forces organization, says the Goldman Prize money will help support forest patrols and community-level efforts to combat illegal logging.
Like many in Cambodia, he views the government’s record with skepticism.
“The poverty-reduction policy of the government seems to be just to kill the poor people,” Leng said.
“Their ‘master plan’ to improve living standards is set up very well and looks very beautiful. To provide jobs with fair competition and construction of schools, roads, bridges. … To provide land for the people and conserve their houses,” he said. But he added that such talk is generally not put into practice by private companies or the government.
Still, Leng believes he is making headway in convincing the public to resist the loss of their livelihoods and homes.
“Many political parties, government officials, students and monks are involved in forest issues,” Leng said. “The revolution will come from the land and from the forest.”