[Above: Mr. Ouch Leng, conservation hero. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize.]
TEMPLES WITHOUT TREES
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.
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.”
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.