As activists from Prey Lang forest received the prestigious Equator Prize in Paris on Monday, another, parallel network was asserting itself in Kampong Thom province – one with close ties to the security forces and local governor.
The Prey Lang Forest Community Network (PLFCN), funded by Kampong Thom Governor Uth Sam An, has allegedly intimidated Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) patrols. Activists fear it could be the death knell for a grassroots environmental movement that has fractured greatly since the murder of prominent environmentalist Chut Wutty in 2012.
Prey Lang was named as one of the world’s top 10 “biodiversity hotspots” by Conservation International earlier this year and supports the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, as well as being a watershed area for the Tonle Sap lake.
But decades of lax law enforcement coupled with agro-industrial encroachment has led to the destruction of vast swathes of its forestland. Community patrols to combat the deforestation were started in the early 2000s, often led by Wutty himself.
Prey Lang activists say the PLFCN, backed up by military police, has now threatened them with arrest if they continue to patrol in the province’s Sandan district, which has historically sat at the heart of the illegal logging trade in Prey Lang.
The head of the PLFCN, a man named Sim Sean, has been accused by PLCN members of taking bribes and helping to protect illegal loggers – allegations he denies.
Of further controversy is that members of his organisation, which Sean said receives direct monthly payments from Sam An, has also allegedly received training and equipment from Winrock International, a US government-funded non-profit founded by the Rockefeller family.
The PLFCN was formed following a Winrock-funded training session in late October requested by Sam An. Sean was among those in attendance.
Only weeks later, a PLCN patrol was intercepted by Sean and a detachment of security forces and told that they would be arrested if they returned as the PLFCN was now the only group approved to carry out patrols, according to Ouch Leng, head of the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force, who accompanied the patrol that day.
“His group stopped us and threatened us with arrest . . . He [Sean] thinks that Prey Lang in Kampong Thom . . . is now under his control,” he added.
Sean yesterday said that he had been an activist for 15 years, but as the forest continued to be lost to the loggers, he decided to partner with the government instead.
“Now more officials are co-operating to combat illegal logging, not like before,” he said. “From now on, our community will not let anyone enter the area if they criticise us and do not cooperate.”
The PLFCN “announced that they are funded by Winrock and were given expensive goods to patrol with”, Leng said, adding that he saw USAID-labelled cameras and radio equipment being used by its members.
“They’re not real Prey Lang conservationists. They prevented us from entering areas where there are illegal sawmills. They did not want us to see illegal logging there.”
Photos on Sean’s Facebook page show him patrolling in Prey Lang with soldiers and military police and wearing a USAID T-shirt.
In a statement, Winrock said it has not officially funded either Prey Lang group as its Supporting Forests and Biodiversity (SFB) project cannot finance initiatives not registered with the government.
It said it had provided training to Sean and a number of other community members in late October at the request of the governor, and attendees were provided expenses and lodging. It also provided training and support to an eco-tourism site established by Sean, though this did not include direct payments.
If the SFB project had evidence that persons or organsiations it worked with were involved in illegal activity, it would end the relationship, but could not do so based on “speculation, rumours or innuendo”.
Marcus Hardtke, project coordinator for the Rainforest and Wildlife and Conservation Association, known as ARA, and a longtime backer of Wutty before his death, said the establishment of the PLFCN was “obviously an attempt to destroy the work of the Prey Lang Community Network”.
“If the governor thinks he can give this guy exclusive access rights and exclusive control over the area, it’s entirely ridiculous and unconstitutional,” he said. “These goons are running around armed and throwing their weight about wearing USAID T-shirts.”
“The political power . . . that’s the real danger. It’s the political weight of them saying that the American people are behind them.”
PLCN member Hoeun Sop-heap yesterday encouraged the government to “enter genuine dialogue” to discuss the future of Prey Lang after he returned from the award ceremony in Paris.
Governor Sam An meanwhile said that he had chosen Sean to lead the new group because “his will is equal to the government’s to combat illegal logging”.
“They are our eyes and ears keeping watch on the logging and land clearing and making reports to us”.