Interview: Vanishing Forests Make Cambodians' Livelihoods 'Worse And Worse'

Leng Ouch speaks with RFA in Washington, April 21, 2016.

Leng Ouch is the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize winner for Asia. Sometimes called the “Green Nobel” the prize honors grassroots environmental heroes from the world’s six inhabited continental regions. It recognizes individuals for sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk.

Few people embody the spirit of the prize like Leng Ouch. Born to a poor family, he worked his way through school eventually became an attorney working with human rights organizations. Recalling the forests that sustained his family and countless others, he founded the Cambodia Human Rights Task Forces (CHRTF).

Seeking to expose its role in illegal logging to the international community, he went undercover to gather evidence of illegal logging activities, posing as a laborer, timber dealer, driver, tourist, and even as a cook. He publicly released the photos and video footage he gathered, revealing how economic land concessions were used as a cover for illegal logging and exposing criminal collusion between timber companies and government officials. His outspoken criticism of the government put him at enormous risk, in a country where environmental activism is dangerous—sometimes even deadly. He spoke to reporter Vuthy Huot in RFA’s studios in Washington on Thursday.

RFA: We would like to congratulate you for this big win. How do you feel about this?

Leng Ouch: “It is a great honor. It exceeds my dreams, and it is unbelievable for me that among the 189 countries they chose me as a world’s environmental hero. It is great, great honor. I am excited and the government should be proud of me that the world has chosen to be a hero protecting the environment.

RFA: As far as I know there are 6 winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize and each has just received the amount of $175,000. What will you do with the amount of money?

Leng Ouch: We will use the money to continue to protect the forests. Although I know that the government is not happy with me, and we know that my work [forced me to] face danger and receive death threats, I still struggle to protect the forests that are left. We will use the money to appeal to the government as well as international organizations to intervene with the government to stop [illegal wood] factory trades and close all [illegal] timber factories as well as the wood processing businesses which are the major causes of destruction of the forests in Cambodia.

And we will appeal to the people as well as students and relevant authorities to participate together in forest protection because the forest is very important. We are left with very little nowabout less than 20 percentwhich makes us worry about the loss of the forests in the last recent years.

RFA: Is this something that Cambodia can do on its own?

Leng Ouch: China and Vietnam seem to be the masters of Cambodia as they come to invest in Cambodia and they collect the natural resources as well as cut the forests and export raw materials back to their countries to become rich. That leaves the Cambodian people to suffer the impact of losing forests, and it makes their livelihood become worse and worse from one year to another.

RFA: What you have just mentioned, the government now seems committed to measures like the ones you advocate. Did you collaborate with the government and how? And how effective do you think the measures are?

Leng Ouch:  We as a civil society organization don’t have enough protection. We will collaborate with the government, but in reality the government considers those who protect the forests and protect the environment as their enemy. For example, my brother Chhut Vuthy [also known as Chut Wutty] was shot dead during his work investigating the natural forests in Koh Kong province. I will appeal to the international community to push the government to protect the forests seriously, rather than practice their actions only on paper and promise to various donors as well as to the people to just gain popularity and votes. This is the reality, and it is not aimed at criticizing the government.

RFA: You said that the government’s measures are taken only on paper, but we have seen various reports that Prime Minister Hun Sen assigned Sao Sokha to combat the forest crimes, and that they have confiscated a lot of logs and timber, and warrants have been issued to the suspected traders. Do you think that the government produced any positive results so far?

Leng Ouch: It seems that there were no positive signs regarding this matter. Because the prime minister promised in 2002 that he would cut his head off or resign if he could not protect the forests. Since then, we have not seen anything realistic.

RFA: You’re in the United States today. Does that mean anything other than coming to pick up an award?

Leng Ouch: We come to foreign countries to appeal to their people and report to the world to help protect the little forest that is left after the illegal logging and trading activities that are run by the rich and the powerful in Cambodia, by the Oknhas  [powerful Cambodian businessmen] who are allowed to illegally log in the protected forests. This allows them to look down on Cambodia’s laws regarding forest protection. When the Oknhas want to buy a license to operate businesses, they allow them to have the licenses and them they can operate their logging and trading businesses, and export the logs and wood.

RFA: So, when you went to the White House, who did you meet and what did you do there? What was the message from the White House to Cambodian officials about the forest protection? And what was your message?

Leng Ouch: Yesterday, I met with White House officials, and today, I will meet with U.S. senators, congressmen and women, and some leaders from the world who came to San Francisco and Washington, D.C. that welcomed me. I sent important messages to them, to all the countries to help push the government of Cambodia to stop all illegal logging activities and wood or timber factories and wood processing factories. The government has to stop its officials from doing that kind of business. Otherwise the government’s measures won’t be effective.