Cambodian Conservation Hero Honored

[Above: Mr. Ouch Leng, conservation hero. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize.]


Say the word “Angkor” and one of the first images to come to mind is a magnificent stone temple lost in the jungle, nearly encased by the roots of Banyon trees. The temple is Ta Prohm. It was left in this evocative state with trees rooted in its stones to show how the Cambodian forest sheltered the temples after they were nearly abandoned.

Today the gravest problem facing those temples and Cambodia itself is the systematic destruction of the forests and jungle of the country. That’s a big threat to the tourism industry. It is impossible to imagine Cambodia attracting tourists after it has destroyed the jungles and countryside.

The smoky burning wood & and ploughing tractors

Cambodia’s Economic Land Concessions — long-term leases for agriculture like this cassava plantation — help to cover up illegal logging. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize.

Ouch Leng, a Cambodian human rights activist, is one of the six winners of the prestigious Goldman Prize for environmental achievement this year because he is trying to stop this deforestation. It is a nearly impossible goal.

The government of Cambodia, its military and police are promoting the cutting of timber as an “economic” development policy. In fact, it is an environmental disaster. Cambodia’s forests are among the ten most severely threatened in the world. That means the destruction of the equatorial nation’s fabulous wildlife. The destruction of the indigenous forest people who have lived in and cared for the forests for centuries.

Leng told me he knows he is up against the stiffest odds.

“My job is not so easy – it is very dangerous. I take risks and go undercover into jungle to report how the government and private companies are illegally cutting down all the trees.”

Mr. Leng Ouch

Under international pressure stemming from Leng Ouch’s work, Cambodia has canceled 23 land concessions, including two inside Virachey National Park. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize.

His closest colleague – Chut Wutty – was murdered four years ago while he was investigating illegal logging. His death alerted the world that Cambodia was a very dangerous place for people like Leng who are guardians of the forests. Leng has also been threatened.

The choice is stark. Billions of dollars for the Cambodian businesses and government officials involved in the timber trade? Or the salvation of the remaining forests and the very heart of Cambodia?

Tourism, which has become one of Cambodia’s top industries, is directly threatened. Without those forests, the country becomes dry. Desertification begins. The rivers, lakes, rice paddies shrivel. Many tourists will go elsewhere.

Leng is one of the clear-sighted Cambodians who saw this catastrophe in the making. He created the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force to protect the forests as a human right. The Cambodian people cannot exist as they have for centuries without those forests.

His biggest obstacle? “The government officials and military and police,” he said. In other words, the entire establishment of this authoritarian regime.

The government gives licenses to businesses for logging forests over the protests of activists like Leng. The licenses cover land held by villages and farmers or land considered to be held in common. That doesn’t stop the government from ordering everyone out of their homes. The forests are cleared. The wildlife disappears. And the government then allows other big businesses to create huge plantations of palm oil or rubber trees. The locals are impoverished, and so is the country.

Often even that isn’t enough for greedy businesses. They go into national forests and cut down more trees. Local people try to call in the forest rangers or police, but the authorities do nothing. They have been paid to keep quiet.

“I have to keep trying to save the forests,” said Leng. “To appeal to the government stop licensing more logging inside Cambodia. To stop the industrial planting.”

His chief weapon are his reports. He goes undercover and investigates how much logging is being done, what forests are being cut down, and who is profiting.

Those well-researched reports are then released publicly. They are explosive. Leng’s research has helped raise the issue across the country. He works closely with other Cambodian activists who help shield and protect each other from intimidation by the government.

The Goldman Prize of $175,000 will be a big help, he said.

“We don’t have the money we need – we don’t have a real office structure or staff,” he told me. “The Goldman Prize will help us reach donors and help us send out our message. We hope the international community will appeal to the government, will help us convince the government to stop the logging.”

There are a number of ways to help Leng pressure the Cambodian government.

“We also want the international community to help convince the government to reform the legal framework protecting the forest,” he said. “Then the government has to enforce the law, not just on paper.”

Leng has found more than enough evidence of government involvement in this deforestation. He has found evidence of the billions of dollars being made at the expense of the country. That is not in doubt.

Soon the degradation of the land and climate change will reveal the extent of the catastrophe caused by logging. It will be devastating.

But in the meantime, tourists can have a say in this.

Nearly five million tourists visit Cambodia every year. What if they registered their complaints and told the government they wanted to see more forests, more wildlife, more of Cambodia’s famous jungles?

Ouch Leng needs all the help he can get in this nearly impossible crusade.


How To Handle Voluntourism

[On Cape Cod, volunteer painters help out on CARE for the Cape Day. Photo: Judith Selleck]

Voluntourism and Experteering

Volunteer tourism or voluntourism combines travel with service, allowing travelers to use their time and passions and skills towards volunteer opportunities in education, public health, environmental conservation, agriculture, housing development, scientific research, and other arenas in visited communities.  A few examples of voluntourism include assisting with afterschool programs, construction projects, and wildlife studies. More recently, the term “experteering” has become popular in describing a subgroup of voluntourists: Those providing a specific professional skill set (such as coding, graphic design, business plan development, dentistry, etc.) as a volunteer while traveling.

While questions have been raised in recent years about the effectiveness of voluntourism and the potential for doing harm rather than good in the communities it’s intended to serve (see the articles below), there is consensus that voluntourism has the potential to provide positive impacts to both travelers and visited communities alike, creating not just gains in development for local communities, but also fostering cross cultural exchange and appreciation.

As one of the fastest growing trends in travel today according to a July 2014 National Public Radio story, voluntourism has grown rapidly over the past 20 years – to more than 1.6 million volunteer tourists spending about $2 billion each year, with both nonprofit and for-profit organizations involved in helping to place volunteers.  With the rapidly growing number of organizations and opportunities to choose from, below are some recommendations and tips gleaned from articles and resources (see below) to help in the search for a suitable voluntourism organization and opportunity.

Before you sign up to join a voluntourism program, the following preparation is strongly recommended:

  1. Motivation and Goals: Ask yourself the reasons for going abroad and define your goals.
  2. Skills, Abilities, and Interests: Honestly assess what you have to offer as you consider volunteer opportunities.  Do you have specific skills you plan to contribute (are you planning to experteer)?  Or are you planning to volunteer with an organization that does not require a professional skill set?  Are there abilities or interests you have which may help you to be more effective in certain volunteering scenarios?  For example, are you a good writer? Do you enjoy working with animals? Do you get along well with all types of people? Do you have a green thumb? Are you excited about the prospect of helping at an archeological dig?
  3. Sustainability: When looking into projects to volunteer with, see if the project is addressing a real need or problem, is partnering with the community, and is run by a reputable organization.  Check sites for information on the organization/project and see if there are reviews or evaluations available from volunteers and financial reporting organizations such as Charity Navigator and Go (see below) on how well the program is run and how funds are spent.  Contact the organization with questions about community involvement in the project and how the project will help the community and build capacity and not dependency.
  4. Time and Geography: Consider how much time you can contribute.  As a general rule, the more time you can devote to a project, the better. That is not to say you cannot be effective or make a lasting impact over the course of a short period of time, but the more one is able to be integrated into a local community and develop relationships, the easier it typically is to make a greater impact.  Also assess your preferences (if any) for things like climate (tropical, mediterranean, etc.) and environment (whether the mountains, coast, desert, small village, big city, etc).

Resources and Information

Note—The following listings are also being posted to our Resources and Geotravelers sections. We welcome additions.

  • Websites and Directories

Charity Navigator provides information and ratings on hundreds of charities based on their financial health and transparency, allowing users to vet organizations before making donations, volunteering, and supporting them in other ways.

Go Overseas is a website that provides information and reviews on dozens of volunteer opportunities around the world. is a clearinghouse for, among other things, global volunteer opportunities.

One World 365 is a travel directory launched in 2007 that provides information on voluntourism opportunities, along with work programs, English teaching certification programs and placements, ecotourism trips,adventure tours, study abroad and language and other learning courses. provides a wide array of resources, from information on several voluntourism organizations to voluntourism news, webcasts, and academic research.


Traveler’s Philanthropy: Dos and Don’ts of Travel Giving (2009, The Center for Responsible Travel) In this 12 page booklet, a dozen experienced tour operators and tourism organizations engaged in supporting local community projects summarize advice on volunteering and donating.


Where Does the Money Go When You Volunteer? (July 2015, Natalie Southwick,

As Voluntourism Explodes in Popularity, Who’s It Helping Most? (July 2014, Carrie Kahn, National Public Radio)

Is Voluntourism Itself Being Exploited? (April 2014, Daniela Papi, Huffington Post)

10 Traits of a Responsible Volunteer Program (March 2014, Jessie Beck,

Giving Back: A Special Report on Volunteer Vacations (Jan. 2013, Dorinda Elliott, Conde Nast Traveler)

  • Voluntourism Organizations (both nonprofit and for-profit)

Cross-Cultural Solutions is a nonprofit begun in the mid-1990s that provides volunteers (individuals, groups, and families) of all ages, with projects of varying lengths around the world.  Program fees cover food, accommodation, insurance, language lessons, some in-country activities and excursions, and support from local staff.

Earthwatch is a 40+ year old nonprofit that engages volunteers in scientific field research and educational projects worldwide.  Volunteers work alongside researchers on projects in wildlife/ecosystem conservation, climate change, archeology and culture, and ocean health.  Program fees cover accommodations, food, and all related research costs.

Global Citizen Year is a nonprofit started in 2009 that selects fellows (high school graduates) for a “bridge year” of volunteer service before college in Brazil, Ecuador, Senegal, and India.  The program offers opportunities in environmental conservation, education, public health, agriculture, or social enterprise and offers financial aid to selected fellows.

Global Volunteers is a nonprofit founded in 1984 that provides various short-term placements for volunteers in the U.S. and around the world, with a focus on child health and development.  Program fees cover accommodations, food, local staff support, and supplemental health insurance.

Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit started in the mid-1970s that is dedicated to creating affordable housing through new construction and renovation.  Both short term and longer term volunteer opportunities are available globally in fields such as construction, finance, resource development and administration.  Program fees include a donation to Habitat and accommodations, food, in-country support, and supplemental health insurance.

Moving Worlds is a B corporation founded in 2011 that facilitates experteering, that is, matches professionals looking to volunteer their skills with nonprofit organizations in need of specific talents.  Moving Worlds bills itself as “a short-term Peace Corps crossed with”

Projects Abroad is a 20+ year old company that connects volunteers (individuals, groups, and families) of all ages, both professionals and students, with projects of varying lengths around the world.  Program fees cover food, accommodation, insurance, and support from local and North America–based staff.