Phai Bunleang is the leader of the Prey Lang Community Network’s (PLCN) Kratie steering committee. For 16 years, he’s formed a core part of the network’s leadership, working to protect Cambodia’s forest areas against deforestation and illegal logging.
But now the 56-year-old is being asked to do something for the network that he’s never done before, travel outside Cambodia. It almost didn’t happen.
The University of Copenhagen, which works closely with the PLCN, nominated the network for Yale University’s International Society of Tropical Foresters Innovation prize. Only two finalists are selected each year, and they’re expected to travel to Yale to give a presentation. Bunleang’s PLCN colleagues asked him to represent them.
“It’s a big honour to have this opportunity to get this award,” Bunleang said. “It encourages us as a volunteer group, because even if our government doesn’t acknowledge our work, someone does.”
But when he applied for a visa to visit the US, he hit a roadblock. Despite having an invitation letter from Yale, Bunleang says the embassy didn’t understand why he wanted to go.
“When we say we’re volunteers in a community-based organisation, it’s like they don’t think we have value,” Bunleang said. “We just want to advocate for the protection of the forest and share our network’s story.”
His visa application was rejected, with Bunleang receiving a letter saying the embassy hadn’t identified a reason that would compel him to return to Cambodia.
As a subsistence farmer who makes about $900 a year selling vegetables, he matched the profile of a potential immigration risk. “I felt disappointed because it made me think that being a farmer isn’t well-respected,” Bunleang said.
According to US Embassy spokesman Jay Raman, most non-immigrant visas must overcome the presumption that they intend to immigrate.
“There are no specific criteria to overcome this presumption. Consular Officers consider the entirety of the situation based on the information presented by the applicant,” Raman said.
But the PLCN’s international supporters weren’t ready to give up. They began a letter-writing campaign to US officials. Eventually, Bunleang says he was encouraged to apply again.
This time he got the visa. Despite having never left Cambodia, Bunleang says he isn’t nervous about addressing a crowd full of foreigners.
“We love our work and want to show how the Khmer people work to protect our forest,” he said. “We hope forest preservation will contribute to the fight against climate change.”