Frustrated by government inaction, Cambodian citizen patrolers are risking their lives to take on the country’s illegal loggers in a bid to save their shrinking forests.
The shooting of a prominent environmentalist by a military policeman last month after he refused to hand over logging photographs rocked the kingdom and shone an unflattering light on the Cambodian government’s conservation efforts.
Forest communities who depend on the woodlands for their survival say they plan to keep Chhut Vuthy’s brand of grassroots activism alive by stepping up the patrols he introduced last year to monitor forest crimes.
“We are all Chhut Vuthy,” supporters said at a recent memorial rally in the remote jungle in southwestern Koh Kong Province where the 45-year-old was gunned down.
Rampant illegal logging contributed to a sharp drop in Cambodia’s forest cover from 73 percent in 1990 to 57 percent in 2010, according to the UN.
“We must protect the forest before it’s gone. The forest is our rice bowl,” 58-year-old Chan Yeng said at the rally, recalling how she once helped confiscate a chainsaw while on patrol in northeastern Prey Lang forest, where the livelihoods of thousands of indigenous people are at risk.
She said the patrols work: After talking to loggers, documenting their activities or preventing them from benefiting from their illegally harvested timber, her community has seen a drop in forest crimes in recent months.
In the past, when Vuthy was still alive, the patrolers even went so far as to burn hidden caches of luxury timber worth tens of thousands of US dollars.
In what will be their largest coordinated action yet, hundreds of villagers plan to patrol forests across 10 provinces next month according to the Communities Peace Building Network, which coordinates grassroots forest activities.
Campaigners admit it could be risky, but they say forest communities are willing to put themselves in harm’s way because they cannot rely on the authorities to save Cambodia’s natural riches.
“Given the government’s inaction or inability to stop illegal logging and to stop deforestation, I think it now falls to the Cambodian public to do something,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.
Cambodian government spokesman Ek Tha said he welcomed civilian efforts to help preserve the country’s pristine woodlands, but rejected accusations that it was a sign that authorities were failing to tackle the problem.
“You can’t control 100 percent of the natural resources across the nation,” he said.
In its haste to develop the impoverished nation, the government has been criticized for allowing well-connected firms to clear hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest land — including in protected zones — for everything from rubber and sugar cane plantations to hydropower dams.
Rights groups and environmental watchdogs have linked many of these concessions to rampant illegal logging, and say armed government forces are routinely used to act as security guards for offending companies.
Following the outcry over Vuthy’s death, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered a freeze on new land grants, a move cautiously welcomed by environmental groups, who nevertheless argue it will not save the forests already under threat.
For that, campaigners say, more people like Vuthy are needed.
One of them is Prum Dharmajat, 41, a Buddhist monk who lives in Aoral Wildlife Sanctuary in southwestern Kampong Speu Province.
He has quietly dedicated the past 10 years of his life to preserving a 2km by 3km patch of forest near his hut — with a few tips from Vuthy along the way.
The area has long been stripped of its valuable trees, but Dharmajat, whose name translates as “Nature,” tries to dissuade loggers from felling the remaining ones for firewood or charcoal, with some help from the villagers and children he educates about conservation.
“The destruction of nature is happening too quickly,” the orange-clad holy man said, a gaggle of children swarming around his wooden hut.
However, even for monks — highly revered in the staunchly Buddhist nation — standing between a logger and a lucrative haul can be a dangerous undertaking.
Dharmajat said he has been threatened many times and after a recent visit to Phnom Penh, he returned to find several trees felled and 11 peacocks poisoned close to his home, in what he believes was an act of revenge by frustrated loggers.
However, Dharmajat is undeterred and said he supported the plans for more community patrols as an effective tool to deter forest crimes.
However, he urged patrolers and those accused of harming the forest to peacefully handle their inevitable confrontations.
“We have to resolve it so that no blood is shed,” he said.