About 200 environmental activists have entered a rare Cambodian rain forest area in a bid to combat illegal logging and other abuses which they say stem from government-linked concessions for opening up rubber plantations and mineral extraction.
The activists, calling themselves Cambodia's "Avatars," will "patrol" the core area of the Prey Lang forests for a seven-day period from Monday in what has been dubbed by some groups as Occupy Prey Lang.
The move may have been inspired by the Occupy Wall Street protests that began in New York recently decrying corporate greed and economic inequality.
The activists from all four Prey Lang provinces—Preah Vihear, Kratie, Stung Treng, and Kompong Thom—said they want to assert their right to protect the sprawling 3,600 square-kilometer (1,400-square mile) forest area.
"As Cambodian citizens, they are asserting their rights to protect this forest by fanning out across the forest on foot to discourage forest crimes and to challenge concessionaires," a statement from the Prey Lang Community Network said.
They have vowed a peaceful campaign, saying they will confront illegal loggers and poachers and explain to them the value of the forests and the need to protect them.
“If we don’t express the voices of the youth to the public, the government won’t know that Prey Lang is so important to us,” said group youth leader Em Khemra.
Some activists gathered for prayers on Tuesday around the Preah Ang Dangker statue in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.
"We prayed for forest protection because the forest is so dense that it will help protect the environment," another group member Sar Mony said.
“We are protecting the forests to ensure our environment's sustainability and prevent any natural disaster.”
The activists planned to converge at “O Chrok,” the heart of Prey Lang area in Sandan district, Kompong Thom, where they claim forest crimes have increased.
The activists also plan to hold a vigil at the site of a Vietnamese military-linked company Chu Se Rubber Company Kompong Thom (CRCK) which has begun clearing forests in order to make way for a rubber plantation.
The Prey Lang network says more than 40,000 hectares (98,840 acres) in the forest have been granted for rubber plantations alone, while 27 exploration licenses and related concessions have been handed to mining firms.
Community leader Sim Sean told RFA that local authorities had received bribes from the company as they cleared the forests to establish the rubber plantation.
But Kompong Thom deputy governor Oth Sam On denied the accusation, saying that the company owns a government license to carry out its activities.
The company has cleared only areas reserved for plantation activity and "not the dense forests," he said.
After several days in the forests, about 50 activists among the 200 are reportedly sick due to exhaustion and lack of food, rights groups said.
Rights activist Chheng Sophorse said bad weather and lack of medicine have compounded the problem.
In August, the activists gathered outside the royal palace for a religious ceremony and distributed leaflets defending the Prey Lang forests, which some green groups claim is Southeast Asia's largest lowland evergreen forest.
They wore dress and makeup inspired by the blockbuster movie "Avatar," which depicts the destruction of a forest on an alien world and its inhabitants' bloody fight to protect their home from miners.
Most of the wood from Prey Lang is smuggled into China and Vietnam where it is made into furniture and exported worldwide, some environmental groups have charged.
Reported by RFA's Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.