One man's fight to save Cambodia's 'killing forests' from the chainsaws

Ouch Leng, a Cambodian environmentalist, has been awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in recognition of his work that exposes illegal activity by timber barons. 

David Longstreath/AP/File
A young Cambodian sits atop one of countless logs piled in a field near Pailin, Cambodia, in this Monday, Feb. 27, 2000, file photo.

Ouch Leng sidles around a haul of illegal timber. A group of loggers, who have been apprehended here in one of Cambodia’s largest forests, are forced to slash the binding ropes; the timber falls to the red earth.

As the patrol of local activists, known as Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN), takes names and confiscates chainsaws, Mr. Leng stands to one side, listening. Somewhere, in the tree-sliced light, the grind of more chain saws can be heard.

Leng has spent the past 15 years investigating logging tycoons in Cambodia, a small tropical kingdom that has long been pushed around by more powerful nations. Rampant corruption has flourished under an elite that operates within a culture of impunity. 

As a result, Cambodia has become the world’s most rapidly deforested country, with 1.5 million hectares (about 3.7 million acres) destroyed since 2001, according to data collated by Global Forest Watch in Washington, D.C. There are now roughly 7.5 million hectares of forest left in a country of 15 million people.

In recognition of his dogged and dangerous work, Leng, a lawyer in his early 40s, is among the recipients of year’s Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s largest such award by value. The prize will provide $175,000 to support Leng's grassroots work at a ceremony today in San Francisco.

Leng says he won’t shy away from outlining the risks to him in his acceptance comments, as well as his hopes to inspire others.

“My job involves grave risk and much danger,” reads a draft of his speech. “I imagine that I could be killed or imprisoned because of the threats made against me for many years… I hope I am a good role model for the young people who want to fight for positive change and protect the small amount of remaining forest in Cambodia.”

Starting under cover

Leng started working undercover in 2001 for companies owned by Try Pheap, a timber magnate who is accused of using his political ties to Prime Minister Hun Sen to get concessions to cut down valuable forests and remove thousands of families from their land.

Leng first worked as a cook for logging teams dispatched to the deep jungle before eventually getting a job as an administrative assistant. “They have to know you well before they let you deal with information,” he explains. 

He was never found out and revealed the results of his investigation in several reports via his NGO, Cambodian Human Rights Taskforce.

The reports detailed how 300,000 people had been evicted since 2005 due to development deals and concessions awarded to Mr. Pheap and other tycoons. The displaced forest dwellers were sometimes employed by the tycoons to cut the forest down. They included indigenous groups and people who had settled there after being uprooted by the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime that ruled Cambodia from 1975-1979.

The remnants of the Khmer Rouge used the forests as a base to wage guerrilla warfare into the 1990s. The conflict protected much of the forest from exploitation as loggers and poachers were too afraid to enter. As peace returned, industrial logging resumed. Tycoons took advantage of a weak state that exercised little control over valuable natural resources.

In 2001, Cambodia passed a land law that was designed to protect people at risk of being evicted to make way for plantations and other development projects. Indigenous tribes and long-term squatters were allowed to apply for property deeds. However, most don’t possess the education or funds to make such a claim, allowing the tycoons to swoop in.

What to do with an illegal haul 

In recent years, Global Witness, a UK-based campaign group, gathered evidence showing that Pheap and his government backers had amassed vast fortunes based on trading protected species such as Siamese Rosewood and Mreas Prov. Sei La, an operations manager for Pheap’s group, rejected the accusations last year. “What Global Witness says in the report is not true.… We only buy confiscated illegally logged wood from the government for export,” he told the Cambodia Daily.

In fact, Pheap has exclusive rights to purchase illegally logged wood seized by forestry officials despite a law requiring such timber be publicly auctioned off. Which is why Leng looks so dismayed when the PLCN patrol decides to leave the seized wood, worth as much as $6000, for Cambodia’s Forestry Administration to pick up.

“I say burn it,” says Leng. “Because the forestry officials will eventually sell it to a logging tycoon.”

The other patrol members bristle. Their donors, mostly foreign-funded aid groups, deplore “violent methods.” It might not look good to be torching someone’s cargo. And it’s the dry season: the timber’s spindly twigs and leaves could spread fire through the forest. 

Leng doesn’t care if his methods are seen as extreme. He is frustrated at what he sees as the equivalent of street-level drug busts by the patrol. “It’s depressing sometimes,” he says. “When you fight against something your whole life and it just seems to continue.” 

The apprehended loggers are thin, malnourished men with sun-blackened skin. Under questioning by the patrol, they confess: An illegal sawmill is operating in the forest, hidden down one of the tangled tracks the leads deep into the forest.

Leng wants to investigate but the patrol decides it is too risky. “I will come back on my own,” he says. “And gather enough evidence to force the authorities to close it down.”

The dangers of activism

Leng knows that the tycoons that control the wood industry are dangerous people. His colleague, Chut Wutty was killed in 2012 by military police officers while he was investigating illegal logging.  No charges were ever brought; military officers are widely accused of transporting illegal timber.

“Business in Cambodia is incestuous, dominated by a small coterie of government officials, military commanders, and grandees who are bound tightly together by ties of money and marriage,” says Sebastian Strangio, author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia.”

PLCN members make the loggers press inked thumbs – many rural Cambodians are illiterate – to a contract promising not to do it again. After Leng leaves the forest the patrol continues. Two days later a female member was reportedly gashed with an axe while she slept, severely wounding her leg. The activists suspect a gang of disgruntled loggers.

Leng’s family is now in hiding after months of intimidation by local officials. “I have taken care to make my home look like an office so they can’t find me easily,” he says. “But they have made clear now my family aren’t safe.” 

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