More than 600 Cambodian activists and rights defenders will travel Thursday to a remote forest area where a prominent environmentalist was murdered to underline their commitment to battle illegal logging and other environmentally destructive activities, organizers said.
Aside from wanting to commemorate the work of Chut Wutty, who was killed last month while investigating illicit logging operations in Koh Kong province, the group will patrol the surrounding forest in a bid to identify any illegal timber-extracting activities, they said.
The action, to be led by a consortium of groups established to protect the Prey Lang forest in southwestern Cambodia, is meant to show that activists in the country will not be intimidated from carrying out their work despite the threat of violence, organizers told RFA’s Khmer service.
Communities from eight provinces affected by deforestation will travel to and spend the night at the Timber Green logging company in Koh Kong province’s Mondul Seima district, where Chut Wutty was allegedly gunned down on April 26 by a military policeman, who was also found dead under mysterious circumstances.
The chief of security at Timber Green has been charged with accidentally killing the military policeman, In Rattana.
The group will then make a trip to the forest in the nearby Cardamom Mountains over the next two days.
Cambodian Center for Human Rights director Ou Virak told RFA that he does not fear participating in the patrol, adding that the group plans to march into Timber Green’s facility seeking evidence of illegal logging.
“They will go in and search because they have the right to protect the forest,” he said.
The villagers no longer trust the Koh Kong authorities, who have told them there is no illegal logging under way in the province, Ou Virak said.
“Corrupt officials have destroyed the forest. The killing of Chut Wutty will not silence us.”
‘We will struggle’
Doung Doeum, an activist from northwestern Cambodia’s Siem Reap province, said he will bring 50 people with him to Koh Kong to help find evidence of illegal logging.
“We will face problems, but we will struggle. We have experienced all sorts of problems with land disputes—even to the point of having been arrested by the authorities—but we are not afraid,” he said.
“If the authorities stop us, that means they won’t help us protect the forest.”
Koh Kong governor Bun Loeut refused to comment on the villagers’ planned patrol, but Mondul Seima district governor Sun Koeun said he would welcome ideas from the villagers and would facilitate a gathering.
“If they come, I will facilitate this. We will find a place to talk,” he said.
The Prey Lang activists had previously been championing conservation by conducting campaigns while wearing 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.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday issued an order temporarily suspending land concessions that have led to land grabs in villages and illegal logging activities in forest reserves.
The move came as a U.N. official launched an investigation into the impact of land concessions on local villagers concerned over forced evictions stemming from deals linked to corrupt officials
Some 90 percent of Cambodians live in rural areas and depend strongly on the country’s water, land, and forest resources, and critics have slammed the government for failing to preserve adequate land for its people, despite granting thousands of hectares in land concessions to private companies.
In 2008, Global Witness found that Cambodian forest coverage had dropped to 35 percent from 59 percent in 1997. Forests covered 73 percent of the nation in 1969.
Reported by Chin Chetha for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.