Cambodia’s Prey Lang: how not to protect a vital forest

By any metric, Cambodia’s Prey Lang forest is vitally important. A biodiversity hotspot, it spans approximately 500,000 hectares of diverse types of forest teeming with animals, insects and birds, including endangered species, and provides resin tapping and other sources of livelihood for many of the Indigenous Kuy People living within or adjacent to the sanctuary. As the largest lowland rainforest in mainland Southeast Asia, Prey Lang also plays a key role in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere and is a crucial source of water for Cambodia. The government designated much of the forest as a protected Wildlife Sanctuary in 2016.

In February 2020, Ministry of Environment rangers blocked hundreds of community members, monks and environmental activists from entering the protected area to conduct an annual tree-blessing ceremony to promote conservation.

The event was organized by the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN), most of whose members are Indigenous Kuy. Prey Lang is a central part of the Kuy people’s livelihood, culture and spirituality – to the extent that “Prey Lang” literally means “our forest” in the Kuy language.

Since then, PLCN members have been prohibited from entering their forest, with the government asserting that the group is operating illegally. Previously the group’s volunteers played a crucial role in patrolling the protected area and reporting instances of illegal logging. But during 2020 PLCN members have had to watch on as convoys of trucks pass ranger stations on their way out of the forest, piled high with lumber illegally harvested from freshly felled trees.

The related cultural losses for the Kuy are immeasurable, but we can now quantify the environmental cost of the restrictions on PLCN. Recent data published by the University of Maryland in partnership with Global Forest Watch show that over 9,000 hectares of forest was lost during 2020. Twenty percent more trees were lost in 2020 than 2019. So far this year, deforestation in Prey Lang remains out of control. The same institutions registered 16,991 deforestation alerts during the first week of March alone.

Meanwhile the pressure on PLCN has been unrelenting. In early February this year, Ministry of Environment officers arrested and arbitrarily detained five environmental defenders for investigating illegal logging in Prey Lang. They were only released three days later, after signing a document committing to refrain from entering the sanctuary without permission from the Ministry of Environment.

The Ministry frequently asserts without evidence that large-scale illegal logging operations in Prey Lang and other protected areas have been eradicated and any residual illegal logging in Prey Lang is carried out by local villagers only.

But the scale of this deforestation strongly suggests it’s sustained by larger commercial operations. The recently published satellite data from University of Maryland and Global Forest Watch show a concerning increase in the rate of selective cutting in specific areas.

Cambodian authorities should undertake thorough, credible, and independent investigations into reports that commercial logging companies are involved in illegal logging.

But instead, Ministry of Environment officials seem determined to question the motives of anyone reporting on the scale of deforestation in Prey Lang. After a recent investigation by my own organization, a Ministry of Environment spokesperson suggested Amnesty International “favor(s) policies that would cause more disputes, anarchy and lawlessness.” 

The Ministry accuses PLCN of operating illegally because it is not registered under Cambodia’s widely-criticized Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations – despite PLCN being a grassroots network with no formal structure, office, or staff. Since its introduction in 2015, this law has been overwhelmingly used to repress outspoken civil society groups.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Cambodian authorities could enable those community groups who know their forests intimately to protect them. We know from experience in other countries that Indigenous Peoples can be incredibly effective guardians of their ancestral forests. By law, Cambodian legislation guarantees the right of local communities and Indigenous Peoples living nearby to participate in the sustainable management and conservation of protected areas, and this requirement is also firmly grounded in Cambodia’s international human rights obligations.

The skyrocketing deforestation in Prey Lang demands a change in course. It also demands a scaled-up response from the international human rights movement.

Richard Pearshouse, Head of Crisis and the Environment at Amnesty International

The skyrocketing deforestation in Prey Lang demands a change in course. This includes reassessing the role of USAID, which funds a $21-million partnership with the Ministry of Environment aimed at protecting Prey Lang. PLCN maintains that USAID has been silent while the Ministry has moved against them. USAID should accept PLCN’s invitation to travel to meet them in the provinces.

It also demands a scaled-up response from the international human rights movement. It’s not only PLCN that is under intense pressure. Cambodian authorities have targeted other environmental activists with arrest and arbitrary detention. 

On 4 September 2020, three environmental defenders affiliated with activist group Mother Nature Cambodia – Thun Ratha, Long Kunthea and Phuong Keorasmey – were arrested and later charged with “incitement” in retaliation for their peaceful efforts to raise public awareness of threats to Cambodia’s natural resources. All three are recognized as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. They remain in detention, awaiting the verdict of a fundamentally unfair trial.

Cambodia is a case study in how rights violations and environmental destruction can feed off each other. The international human rights movement needs to find joint cause with Cambodia’s beleaguered environmental movement. Now is the time to speak out for PLCN and other environmental groups in Cambodia to counter the dangerous accusations that they are somehow working illegitimately and illegally under Cambodian law.

NOTE: This op-ed was originally published by Thomson Reuters Foundation