It is three years tomorrow since environmentalist Chut Wutty was gunned down in the far reaches of Koh Kong province. Meet three forest advocates who are carrying on the late campaigner’s legacy
A former soldier with a fearless attitude, organisational know-how and high-level contacts in the military, Chut Wutty was a unique figure in the Cambodian environment movement. Wutty personally exposed illegal logging syndicates and organised community forest patrols, while also negotiating with authority with influential figures within the government.
Three years after he was fatally shot on April 26, 2012 while investigating illegal logging in Koh Kong, his mud covered boots have proven difficult to fill.
According to Sarah Milne, an Australian environmentalist and academic, Wutty was “incredibly brave” and “pushed boundaries that nobody else dared” for simply approaching illegal loggers, asking what they were doing and taking photos in broad daylight.
Milne, the co-editor of recently published book Conservation and Development in Cambodia, which is dedicated to Wutty, first encountered him in 2002 when they both worked for Conservation International – at that moment Wutty had helped to negotiate with a military battalion based in the Cardamom Mountains, for them to relocate outside of the area.
“I think that single move was the thing that saved the Cardamoms for the next decade,” she said. “It was masterful. He had this ability to access and negotiate at a high level, which made him different to an everyday grassroots activist from the village who normally couldn’t engage in those spaces.”
"Wutty’s military experience made him a special player in the system,” said long-time friend and colleague Marcus Hardtke.
“Knowing how the game is played because he knew the other side because he came from the other side, that’s important,” Hardtke said. “That’s why he’s so hard to replace.”
Wutty’s military connections were ultimately unable to save him during the fatal confrontation in Koh Kong.
He was found dead from bullet wounds in the driver’s seat of a vehicle after refusing to hand over a memory card and camera with photos of yellow vine stockpiles to a military police officer. The officer was also shot and killed during the incident. A security guard was charged with the officer’s killing but only served a few months of his sentence.
The true circumstances remain uncertain and no one was ever charged with killing the activist.
Wutty’s death didn’t stop people’s patrols and that was part of his legacy, said Hardtke, but they were no longer as widespread or being held as consistently.
“The problem is, without somebody like Wutty pushing it further, it’s probably not going as far as it should be,” he said. “It should not be an on and off affair; these patrols should be a normal part of a protected or general forest area."
Wutty’s key achievement was showing people in remote forest areas they had power to do something to protect their livelihoods, said Hardtke, who has worked for various ecological and activist groups such as Global Witness but is now an independent consultant.
“Despite greed and corruption and the fact they cannot rely on the people in uniform and government, they still have the power to do something and that was really crucial,” he said.
Chhim Savuth, who worked with Wutty and took over as director of his NGO Natural Resource Protection Group, said no one had come along who could take on Wutty’s mantle.
“I am not sure about the young activists. I see many of them now, but it is hard to find people like Wutty,” Savuth said.
“I saw a lot of young activists advocating to protect and to live in the forest with the communities like us. But they just went to train the community for only one or two days, and it is hard to find people to live in the deep forest.”
Ny Chakrya, rights group Adhoc’s lead monitor, disagreed, saying he was sure there were young activists trying hard and risking their lives to protect the forests.
“People just have not noticed them yet,” he said.
“Wutty was so famous and considered so strong because he lost his life protecting the forest – most people knew about him only after he was killed. Most people never pay attention to the living people who work hard; they only praise the ones that lose their lives for their duty.”
Milne said Wutty’s death was “incredibly demoralising” for the environment movement but that his legacy would continue.
“He’s a household name … and in some ways a frightening example of what happens when you push the boundaries too much,” she said.
“It’s a tragedy that he had to become a martyr in that way. But it doesn’t make people less passionate or less daring. I think there will be another generation of Cambodian leaders and they will step up.”
Mao Chan Thoeun, 34
When Chut Wutty organised patrols of Prey Lang forest, which straddles four provinces in eastern Cambodia, hundreds of activists would gather by the tree line at dawn, hauling whatever supplies they could on the back of beat-up motorbikes for the journey through Cambodia’s greatest expanse of evergreen woodland.
Mao Chan Thoeun, a 34-year-old activist, still plies the very same trails, barking instructions through a crackling walkie-talkie to her counterparts and listening out for the muffled reverberations of chainsaws in the distance. But since Wutty’s death, the money has dried up and the band of patrollers has diminished.
Consequently, the loggers have returned with renewed impetus.
“Before there was no illegal logging in our area because we patrolled more often with community people and we joined in solidarity from one community to another, but nowadays there is less solidarity with each other, so the illegal loggers operate freely,” she says.
Chan Thoeun cuts an imposing figure. She has gained the respect of her fellow activists by way of grit and hardiness. Often having to sustain her strength on packs of dried noodles and water during long days tracking loggers under the canopy, she says she is ready for anything. “Although I am a female … I am strong in protecting the environment and brave to solve problems. I need to face any challenges that we come up against.”
“Before, there were fewer female activists, but now more are becoming activists to protect the environment. Since we explained to people in the community the value of natural resources, they learned about the benefits and they want to take part.”
Before the death of Wutty, Chan Thoeun says the Prey Lang activists “were willing to sacrifice their lives to preserve the natural resources,” by confronting the loggers and security forces head on.
Now, with fewer bodies on the timber trail, coming face-to-face with organised – and sometimes armed – loggers carries more of a risk.
“Sometimes we are concerned about our safety,” she continues, “but we always help each other with problems and we will sacrifice our lives if needs be to raise awareness to protect our country not just for individuals’ benefit.”
While no one has emerged with the presence, or financial backing, that Wutty possessed, Chan Thoeun is adamant that the new generation of activists displays the same resolve and determination of the old guard.
“I think some activists are as strong as Chut Wutty because they do the same work to help the environment,” she said.”We keep continuing to do it, because the national resources are more important than our lives. “If we have no forests, we will have nothing.” DANIEL PYE AND VANDY MUONG
Ven Vorn, 36
Faced with the displacement of his community from their ancestral home in Koh Kong province’s Areng Valley, Ven Vorn chose to fight and, consequently, his people chose him.
As the elected leader of the ethnic Chong community, the 36-year-old is among locals spearheading efforts against the proposed Stung Chhay Areng hydro-power dam, which threatens to uproot more than 1,000 villagers.
“Without this community, the villagers will have nowhere to go or jobs to do, they have been living like this for generations,” Vorn said.
“So long as I am alive I cannot stand watching my villagers suffer, especially the kids ... as a leader I’d rather die than see this happen.”
Born to a family of farmers, Vorn left school after grade four and entered the monkhood for four years. At 21, he began working with Conservation International, helping locals learn about protecting the environment and patrolling the forest to combat illegal logging.
Beginning last year, his efforts turned to organising protests against the dam. He also works as a consultant for the local district but alleges work is often cut off and salaries regularly delayed in retaliation for his activism. But there’s more at stake than his job, he says.
If the dam is built, he worries his villagers will lose their livelihoods and their children will miss their chance for an education and will be robbed of their right to enjoy the area’s natural beauty.
“The next generation won’t see the best natural resources anymore,” he said.
For him, Chut Wutty, whom he met once in Areng Valley, was a hero, a “great and strong man”. “I deeply regret that he died; if he was alive Areng Valley would not be in such horrible condition because he would stand with us to protect it,” Vorn said.
Vorn has more in common with Wutty than just his desire to protect his country’s natural resources. Like Wutty, he has found himself facing allegations of “illegal logging” levelled by authorities.
In his case, the claims – which centre on forest wood Vorn used “without permission” to help build a visitors centre in Areng Valley – have been widely labelled an attempt to stifle opposition to the dam.
Vorn was summoned for questioning shortly after the deportation of Spanish anti-dam activist Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, founder of NGO Mother Nature, with which Vorn has worked closely.
As for allegations about Wutty being a “great log trader”, Vorn said they were cheap. “I hope all Cambodians, it does not matter if they are young or old, join together to protect that nature that belongs to us in both direct and indirect ways,” Vorn said.
“If we do not do anything ... everything will be vanished including forest, animals, even the resources under the ground.” SHAUN TURTON, VANDY MUONG AND VANN SREYNOCH
Chheuy Oddom Rasmey, 22
Environmental activism is in Chheuy Oddom Rasmey’s blood.
Like his revered late father Chut Wutty, the 22-year-old has always been committed to preserving Cambodia’s precious resources, from a child learning about deforestation, to an adolescent working for Wutty as an administrator.
And his father’s tragic death three years ago hasn’t deterred the young activist from continuing to follow in his footsteps.
“I love the forest like my dad did so I continued with my work to protect the environment even after he left this world,” he said.
Oddom Rasmey says that more so than his father’s legacy, the ongoing suffering of those affected by deforestation is what drives him to keep up the fight in the face of opposition from authorities and loggers.
“I have seen many people in each community get hurt from losing forests, and I have felt hurt too. I’m not doing it for my dad but for my whole country,” he said.
Last month, Oddom Rasmey released his first independent environmental investigation since his father’s passing.
The result of a fact-finding mission in Ratanakkiri province, the investigation identified four companies – including the notorious Try Pheap Group – as having allegedly stockpiled luxury timber on a large scale.
The activist said future investigations will continue targeting big companies, especially the Try Pheap Group, which he said poses the greatest threat to Cambodia’s forests.
Oddom Rasmey identified the Cardamom Mountains as one of the biggest areas of concern in Cambodia, because of its array of valuable wildlife.
In addition to investigations, the law graduate said he uses his degree to educate people about the Kingdom’s Forest Law.
“Natural resources don’t belong to [Prime Minister] Hun Sen or tycoon Try Pheap, they are for all people. But I tell people in the communities we must protect our resources and I encourage them, too, to respect law,” he said.
Oddom Rasmey is working on an investigation in Virachey National Park but, because of a lack of funding, he said the project is stalled in the research phase.
Meanwhile, as he awaits the necessary funds, he continues to patrol the same forestland that Wutty regularly risked his life to protect.
While his father died because of his environmental activism, Oddom Rasmey said he is not afraid of meeting the same fate.
“When I started this job, I had already sacrificed my life,” he explained.
“I am a Cambodian and I love Cambodia,” he added, before calling on the prime minister to join him in his crusade.
Hun Sen “should love Cambodia’s natural resources and people, because this country has already changed too much.” ALICE CUDDY AND VANDY MUONG