Cambodia’s forests are quietly and rapidly disappearing.
As the impoverished country slides deeper into political crisis, corrupt elites continue to siphon off its natural resources through a criminal network in which state officials and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s cronies are allegedly complicit.
The government’s latest efforts to curb illegal logging and deforestation have been hampered by poor law enforcement, high-level corruption and the state’s own crackdown on its environmental critics. And as Phnom Penh grants companies economic land concessions ― or long-term land leases ― to establish rubber and palm oil plantations, local community members have found themselves on a daunting mission to protect what remains of their beloved forests.
An investigative report by U.K.-based NGO Global Witness describes a “multi-million dollar black-market trade” through which loggers are granted safe passage and immunity from penalties to smuggle Cambodian rosewood to China. At the helm of this reported operation is tycoon Try Pheap, an associate of the prime minister. Hun Sen has lashed out against a cascade of damning accusations by local media and watchdogs like Global Witness, once calling the anti-graft organization ignorant, stupid and “crazy.”
But an official probe last year also found that dozens of Cambodian police officers, military personnel and senior state officials accepted bribes to assist Vietnamese timber smugglers. The Environmental Investigation Agency doubled down on these allegations months later, reporting that approximately 300,000 cubic meters of logs had been smuggled out of the country with the help of Cambodian authorities and laundered in Vietnam in less than a year, to the tune of more than $13 million.
These illicit networks have had devastating ramifications in Cambodia, where rural poor and indigenous communities have relied on forested areas as a vital source of income for thousands of years. With one of the highest rates of tree cover loss in the world, the country saw nearly 2 million hectares, or 20 percent of its forests, diminish between 2001 and 2016. Satellite images from NASA show the drastic transformation over time.
Cambodia’s Environment Ministry in Phnom Penh dismissed the data as “incitement” by NASA and an attempt at “confusing the public with the desire to criticize the government.” But analysts point to an alarming trend that places the future of Cambodia’s forest ecosystems ― and the communities who depend of them for their livelihoods ― in jeopardy.
“At the rate Cambodia has been going, it’s losing over 1 percent of its total forest every year. You can’t do that indefinitely,” Nancy Harris, research manager for Global Forest Watch, told HuffPost. “Over the 1990s and 2000s a lot of illegal logging happened and so there’s now very little intact primary forest, compared to what there used to be,” she added. “Right now it’s just sort of the Wild West.”
“This is a country whose natural resources are being rapidly depleted.”
Officials at the Environment Ministry, which manages Cambodia’s protected areas, did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
“This is a country whose natural resources are being rapidly depleted,” Emma Burnett, a senior campaigner with Global Witness, told HuffPost.
“Rather than the profits from the sale of those resources being channeled through the national treasury and into public services ... they’re being creamed off by high-ranking politicians and their business partners and used to consolidate wealth and power on the part of the regime,” she said.
“Then you have these people on the ground, the Prey Lang community, who are really desperately trying to preserve their livelihoods and their way of life. It’s a bit of a David and Goliath story, really.”
The grassroots movement to protect Cambodian forests has seen activists and journalists killed in recent years. Members of a campaign known as the Prey Lang Community Network try to document and prevent illegal logging and the timber-smuggling trade in the vast Prey Lang Forest, which spans four northern provinces.
Watch the 360 GlobalBeat video below to follow members of the PLCN deep into the forest as they patrol the region for illegal loggers.
Saddled on motorbikes and equipped with smartphones to report offenders, hundreds of PLCN patrollers scour the forests for days at a time, several times each month. Many belong to indigenous minority groups who rely on forest resources, although the government has urged them to become less dependent.
Speaking in 2015 about economic land concession grants, Environment Minister Say Samal said Cambodia was trying to “develop our agriculture industry to create jobs for our people, so hopefully they don’t have to depend on the forests anymore.” Instead, he suggested, they should “depend on something else, like a skill.”
The government has barred the PLCN from conducting independent excursions, but many patrollers reject the ban. The network, which has won several international awards including the UNDP Equator Initiative Prize, describes its process on its website:
When PLCN members encounter loggers during patrols, the first step is to initiate a peaceful dialogue with them. We then check whether they have logging permits. If they do not, which is usually the case, we inform them about the destructive effects of logging on the forest and communities.
We then make the loggers sign a contract stating that they will not take part in illegal logging activities in the future. These contracts then form a database of the names and faces of illegal loggers.
“The Prey Lang Community Network are people who love the forest. Our network is not supported by the government, so we work as volunteers,” Phai Bunleang, the defacto PLCN leader for Kratie Province, told an NYU reporting team. “It is difficult to monitor the Prey Lang because it is huge. There are many roads deep inside the forest, and we have limited volunteers.”
Confronting illegal loggers can be an extremely perilous task for the under-resourced and sometimes outnumbered group. In 2016, PLCN activist Phorn Sopheak was attacked with a machete and seriously injured while on patrol.
“They were all young illegal loggers. When they attacked, they chose the person closest to them. Unfortunately, that happened to be me,” she recalled to NYU reporters in March.
In 2012, a military police officer fatally shot environmental investigator Chut Wutty. The activist was showing an illegal logging operation to journalists in southern Cambodia when he was killed.
Even when PLCN patrollers or police make arrests in the forest, they’re often not catching the true culprit, according to Fred Stolle, a senior associate with World Resources Institute.
“They catch the guy with the chainsaw, but he’s just the guy who was hired by the company, and the police don’t go further than that,” Stolle told HuffPost. “It’s very difficult to figure out who is paying people to cut trees, because middlemen use middlemen, and so on.”
Although protecting the Prey Lang is both dangerous and exhausting, Phai Bunleang believes it is a necessary endeavor. He is hopeful, but not optimistic, for more support from the government.
“It’s regrettable when the PLCN works hard as volunteers ― independent and without pay, spending our own money and energy ― that this is still going on,” he said.
But for Cambodia’s forests, time is running out. Experts warn that the rate of deforestation is “massively unsustainable” as timber smuggling networks prevail.
“It goes to show how deeply entrenched corruption is in the forestry sector,” said Burnett. “There have been efforts over the years to try to crack down on this stuff, but politics just pedals in the opposite direction.”