By Max Ediger
The bad news is that a great many forests in Cambodia are being stripped of their valuable trees by people who only wish to make money. One such forest is Prey Lang, meaning “our forest” in a local indigenous language. This is one of the largest primordial forests not only in Cambodia but in the whole Indochinese peninsula. It covers an area of around 360,000 hectares of which 100,000 are pristine primordial forests. The forest is inhabited by around 200,000 locals from 339 villages, mainly from the Kuy ethnic minority.
Prey Lang is under threat from illegal logging, gold and iron ore mining, and hydroelectric dams. The government granted rubber and cassava agro-industry companies 400,000 hectares in the forest area. All of this has led to serious degradation of the forest.
In 2007, after years of campaigning by local groups, the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) was established, formed mainly by local communities and Kuy indigenous people. Chut Wutty, a forest activist who was shot in 2012 in the Cardamom Mountains while investigating illegal logging, was strongly involved in the PLCN. Acts of resistance included actions on the ground, such as burning of illegal timber; forest patrols; seizing of work materials; mapping of illegal logging; biodiversity surveys and so on. It also included lobbying in Phnom Penh with alternative development proposals, as well as mobilizations to receive international attention, such as through ‘occupying’ the forest; petitions; and protest marches supported by Buddhist groups, or villagers dressed up as the ‘avatars’ of Prey Lang.
Since 2009, the PLCN and Wutty petitioned to turn 763,100 hectares of forest area into protected area, based on community management. In 2011, a sub-decree was issued to protect a smaller area, which was a positive step forward; although communities fear that they will not be involved in the management, producing exclusions as well as further illegal logging. The formal cancellation of 40,000 hectares of Economic Land Concessions in 2012 was a ‘rare victory’, but also here, the government hasn’t yet enforced companies to fully stop their operations, according to the Environmental Justice Atlas.
The good news is that PLCN has been selected as a winner of the Equator Prize 2015, with representatives of the organization set to receive the award in December during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.
The group was one of just 21 winners selected from almost 1,500 nominations for the award, which is overseen by the UN Development Program (UNDP) and seeks to highlight “outstanding local and indigenous community initiatives that are advancing innovative solutions for people, nature and resilient communities.”
The winners were announced Saturday during a press conference at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York. Each will receive $10,000 to assist their work.
“[The $10,000] will allow us to continue our work against illegal logging and deforestation,” said PLCN spokesperson Sokheng Seng in a statement. “But what makes us even happier and very proud is the recognition from such an important global player as the UNDP. This proves that our work as a grassroots watchdog is important.”
Since it was established in 2007, PLCN volunteers have organized numerous patrols in which they have seized illegal timber and confronted loggers in Prey Lang Forest, which sprawls through five provinces in northern Cambodia, according to the Phnom Penh Post.
Grassroots movements can have victories and it is the victories, even small ones, that should encourage and energize us to work harder for justpeace in our communities and in the world.