Why a defender of Cambodian forest won a $175,000 prize

Leng Ouch is one six environmental advocates awarded the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize. But in his native country of Cambodia, Ouch's environmental protection efforts stand alone.  

Cambodian environmentalist Leng Ouch is a former government official who has spent two decades helping poor villagers fight poaching of precious tropical forests. He is among the 2016 winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Leng Ouch was awarded the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize – described as the Oscars for environmental activism – for his brave efforts to save the Cambodian forest. 

"The situation is getting worse year after year," Mr. Leng Ouch tells BBC. "There is no improvement, there is more destruction. There is more deforestation and more demand from overseas. We have lost millions of hectares of land through the land concessions."

Through Economic Land Concessions (ELC), the Cambodian government has released more than 2.1 million hectares of forest since the program's inception in 2001 for long-term leases aimed at economy-boosting, large-scale agriculture, such as rubber and sugar plantations. A moratorium was imposed on ELCs in 2012, but Leng Ouch refers to this crackdown as "just a game" because deforestation continues. 

"The Ministry of the Environment doesn't care. They never go inside the jungle to patrol or arrest illegal loggers," Leng Ouch tells the Associated Press. 

So on almost a monthly basis, Leng Ouch disguises himself as different identities and enters the forest. With a camera and GPS locator in hand, Leng Ouch goes undercover as a cook, tourist, or driver to capture evidence of illegal logging in action. And just in the past year, Ouch says he has uncovered more than 2,000 cases of forestry crime. 

Leng Ouch doesn't care if his methods are seen as extreme, The Christian Science Monitor's Nathan Thompson reports."It's depressing sometimes," says Leng Ouch. "When you fight against something your whole life but it just seems to continue." 

But the 39-year-old lawyer continues his work, garnering worldwide recognition. 

"In the hopes that global attention would force the Cambodian government to change its ways, Ouch sought to expose its role in illegal logging to the international community. But in order to do that, he needed to gather and document proof," explains the Goldman Prize. "Ouch's outspoken criticism of the government put him at enormous risk, in a country where environmental activism is dangerous – sometimes even deadly." 

Not only is Leng Ouch's work productive, but it is also extremely brave. Cambodia is notoriously dangerous for environmental activists. At least five deaths have been linked to illegal logging since 2007, including the death of fellow environmentalist Chut Wutty, who was killed in 2012. 

"I try to struggle to protect the remaining forests in Cambodia because I think that not many people can do this job," Leng Ouch tells The Guardian. "Even though I know that my life and even my family is at risk; I could be criminally charged and arrested or get killed, I still try to save the forest, even though I don’t have support from other donors." 

But Leng Ouch and his fellow activists continue to fight for Cambodia's forests because they see the land as more than natural beauty – they provide a way of life. 

Deforestation has forced more than 700,000 native Cambodians off of their land in order to make room for plantations, golf resorts, and other developments typically spearheaded by Chinese investors. The problem is so acute that the United Nations says land rights conflicts are the top human rights issue in Cambodia. The developments promise jobs for local Cambodians, says Leng Ouch, but such promises are rarely realized.   

"Before, those people could earn $2,500 a year, or about $100 a night fishing," Leng Ouch tells the Associated Press. "Now they cannot fish…. They have nothing to eat." According to the World Bank, 80 percent of Cambodia’s population lives in rural areas and 70 percent depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.

Leng Ouch tells the BBC that he plans to use his $175,000 prize to further his protection efforts: "I will use this award to protect and defend the forests, and to ask local people and the international community to protect these areas." 

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