Illegal logging in Cambodia

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Illegal logging in Cambodia

Cambodia’s military and political leaders are involved in illegal logging. The illegal groups are in control. Fran Lambrick says that it is now for local communities to do the work of supporting the law.


A sign in eastern Cambodia warns against illegal logging. © Bjorn Svensson/Alamy

In the villages in Cambodia people collect resins, vines, and rattans from the trees in the forest. Resin trees are passed from one generation to the next and they are protected by Cambodian law.

‘How do you know which trees are yours?’ I ask.

‘How do I know which cows are mine?’ is the answer.

But the trees are disappearing quickly because of deforestation. Over the past 20 years illegal logging has made money for the rich. Phnom Penh’s streets are full of big cars. But this is not helping the living conditions for most Cambodians.

In the 1990s, licences were given to private companies to work in state forests. People said the logging companies were cutting protected resin trees. After local protests, the government took away the licences. They replaced the licences with Economic Land Concessions (ELCs) ‘to help the nation’s economy’. But the ELCs were a new way to make money from the forests. ELCs are not intended for state forests. But 70 per cent of the concessions in 2012 also covered protected areas that have valuable timber.

Marcus Hardtke is from the German environ¬mental organization ARA. He has worked in the country for 20 years. He says the ELCs are very bad for the forests.

Forest protection group

Prey Lang is in northern Cambodia. People there began to fight against deforestation in the 1990s. The owners of resin trees resisted armed guards to protect their trees from loggers. The guards shot at one owner’s house. They killed two people.

In 2006, people from Prey Lang started to organize forest protection groups. Chut Wutty was a local activist and he was the leader. They began to look for illegal loggers.

At the same time community forestry began across the country. But it isn’t easy. They must go through a long process to have a ‘community forest’. And then it is only for 15 years. An ELC licence is for 99 years.


Chut Wutty’s son marches with supporters after his father’s murder in 2012. Chut Wutty was killed when he was investigating illegal logging in southwest Cambodia. Samrang Pring/Reuters

There are problems with community forestry but it works better than state management. The groups reduce illegal logging and forest clearing. And in many areas community forests stop people getting to primary forests for illegal logging.

But, in the last three years there has been more illegal logging in Prey Lang’s forests. Illegal loggers have completely cleared many forests. Illegal land concessions and loggers with guns have cleared protected areas and community forests across Cambodia. The military and corrupt government officials often support the illegal logging in Cambodia. Chainsaws are taken and given to the Forest Administration. But a few weeks later they are often back in the hands of their owners.

In 2012, Chut Wutty was killed when he was investigating illegal logging in the Cardamom Mountains of southwest Cambodia. The Prey Lang group became weak and stopped for months. Then in 2014 there was a new problem – a big saw mill owned by the Prime Minister’s brother, Hun Neng. Without political support, the communities were left weak. Since Chut Wutty’s death, Marcus Hardtke has seen the groups influenced by NGOs. The NGOs do not give the important legal and political support.

Bad foreign aid

But there are new activists. Ouch Leng worked with the Prey Lang group after Wutty’s death. Then in 2014 he worked alone. He found illegal logging, timber exports, and ELC licensing by Try Pheap, a rich man with links to the main political party. Leng worked as a cook for the Vietnamese loggers employed by Try Pheap in the protected areas of Rattanakiri in the northeast. Later, he gave the names of 500 members of the armed forces involved in the illegal timber trade.

From 2001 to 2013 Cambodia lost 1.5 million hectares of tree cover because of logging and clearing land for plantations.

By the end of 2013, 14% of the country – 2.6 million hectares – had been planned for commercial agriculture. ‘The forest is getting smaller and smaller every day,’ says Leng. ‘The government and officials are destroying it.’

Bad foreign aid is making things worse. Winrock International manages USAID’s $20-million project to support forests. But it has done nothing to work against deforestation. During the project rubber plantations have covered 30,000 hectares of ‘protected’ forest in eastern Cambodia. In December 2015, Winrock helped start a new ‘forest group’. Armed police supported the new group as they stopped the ‘real’ Prey Lang group from investigating an area of possible illegal logging.

But Chut Wutty’s community group is strong. Last year they began work again. And at the recent climate talks in Paris they received the 2015 UN Equator Prize for their work. Ouch Leng wants the group to use their prize money to protect the forests before it is too late.

He is also introducing new ways to frighten the illegal loggers. He will invite local monks to call Chut Wutty’s ghost. He will post white funeral flags in the forest with Wutty’s face between the trees.

A ghost forest to frighten the enemies of his murdered friend.

Fran Lambrick is a writer and researcher. She has a PhD on community forestry in Cambodia and the film, I am Chut Wutty, which is about the activist’s battle against deforestation.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed). [[Category: Cambodia]