When Cambodia’s most prominent forest activist, Chut Wutty, was gunned down in April 2012, the community network he created to sabotage the rampant deforestation of this vast forest fragmented. The forest patrols that he organised nearly ground to a halt.
Without money to fund large-scale expeditions, and with a now well-established network of informants whom activists say have infiltrated their group, the task at hand has never been more difficult.
But a number of Wutty’s protégés are slowly making a comeback.
Over the weekend, what was proclaimed to be the largest patrol since the environmentalist was killed set out into sprawling Prey Lang forest, which encompasses parts of Kampong Thom, Kratie, Stung Treng and Preah Vihear provinces.
The operation, which included more than 80 people, embarked from a fork in the road in Kampong Thom’s Sandan district before Sunday’s first light. In the hope of giving the authorities the slip, they sent a decoy patrol to the nearby Vietnamese state-owned CRCK Company plantation, which has reportedly been used as a base to launder timber from Prey Lang.
As the group slowly wound through the forest, Hoeun Sopheap, one of its leaders, expressed frustration with the seemingly insurmountable obstacles confronting the tiny band.
“What we are doing is always failing, because we are being watched all the time,” he said, alluding to a large network of informants eager to give away their movements.
It’s a network built on something his tiny group of activists will never have enough of: cash.
“The loggers give motorbikes and money to some activists so that they join with those loggers and disrupt our work. They learn of our plans in advance, while we real activists face death threats and lawsuits,” he said.
After navigating over waterlogged paddy fields and several kilometres of pitted dirt track, the group started down a rabbit warren of logging trails that snake out from the main route into the interior.
Down each trail, Post reporters accompanying the patrol found at least one newly felled and planked rosewood tree. Each large log can fetch up to $10,000 when sold on to traders and carpenters abroad. Within one short stretch of jungle, the patrol found upwards of $200,000 worth of timber.
The loggers, however, were nowhere to be seen. Chheang Vuthy, who coordinates the activists through the Natural Resource Protection Group (NRPG), believed they had been tipped off.
“As you see, we just arrived in the jungle and all of the loggers are not inside but they have been cutting down the trees,” he said. “They heard the news about our plans already. Some of our activists are working for loggers and the authorities.”
Oung Moly, Sandan district chief of police, denied the activists’ claims that local police were cooperating with the illegal loggers, but said he was aware that such alliances had existed previously.
“Recently, our police have not cut down trees or worked as loggers, but I know that has happened in the past,” he said.
On the way to meet the activists, Post reporters were quizzed by a plainclothes but official-looking man. When asked who he worked for, the man, who would not give his name, replied only that he was “helping out a little bit”.
Locals alleged he was paid to send information to the district and provincial authorities.
Outh Sam On, Kampong Thom provincial governor, claimed that while logging in the province is a problem, most of the wood exported by logging syndicates and confiscated by forestry officials is imported from elsewhere.
“I accept we have [illegal] logging, but following our expert officers, [they] said that the wood is not from my province. It is from somewhere else, because my province has no luxury wood like that. It is imported from other places, because it is easier to transport to other places from my province,” he said.
When the activists found illegally logged timber, they burned it using gasoline carried in containers strapped to the front of their rickety Honda Dream motorbikes. Further into the forest, one of the riders spotted recently cut resin trees and doused the wood before lighting it up.
As the group neared the end of the first leg of its three-day patrol, it had moved into Kratie’s Krang village, where members saw two trucks pass by carrying about 30 rosewood logs confiscated on the orders of Kampong Thom’s deputy prosecutor.
The men atop the trucks stopped by a stream to cool off and wash their clothes on the way to deposit the logs at the Tumring district Forestry Administration office.
When reporters finally reached the office at Tumring yesterday, the second day of the patrol, they found stacks of rosewood logs, some reaching as high as 12 metres.
Despite previously agreeing to be interviewed, the Tumring district Forestry Administration director did not show up to the meeting.
The logs will be stored at the office until trucks from Try Pheap’s MDS Export Import Company arrive to transport them to Vietnam. The tycoon’s company was granted a $3.4 million licence to transport all timber impounded across the country in November of last year.
Mao Chantheourn, one of the most prominent activists now in the vanguard against the deforestation of Prey Lang, is a tough-looking woman in her 40s who clutched a radio to communicate with other activists on patrol.
Part of the community’s approach to reinvigorating a regular network of patrols of western Prey Lang, she said, is to try to educate the villagers who have accepted payoffs from the loggers about the value of sustainable forestry.
“They can get some money from loggers, but it’s only a short-term gain. If we can protect Prey Lang, we can make use of the resources from Prey Lang forever to support our standard of living,” she said.
“We try to lobby them to come back to work against the loggers. We tell them that if we lose Prey Lang, we lose everything.”