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Cambodian forest activist wins top environmental prize

Working undercover, Ouch Leng has exposed how private companies and Cambodia’s government have colluded in the illegal logging and export of valuable timber

Daniel Besant
April 18, 2016

Working undercover, Ouch Leng has exposed how private companies and Cambodia’s government have colluded in the illegal logging and export of valuable timber

Cambodian activist Ouch Leng has been awarded the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize for his work in documenting the illegal felling and export of timber in the Kingdom’s dwindling forests.

Ouch Leng
Ouch Leng in the forest. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize

The global prize is awarded to honour grassroots activists for their sustained and significant efforts to protect the natural environment, often at great personal risk.

Leng has been working for more than 20 years documenting the illegal logging of Cambodia’s valuable trees, often going undercover posing as a tourist, timber dealer, labourer and even a cook. Much of the unlawful activity goes on in collusion with government officials, often those who are supposedly in charge of protecting the forests.

“I think the government still cooperates or is involved with illegal logging and doesn’t care about the forest and the land of the people,” Leng told Southeast Asia Globe.

Since the beginning of this century, the Cambodian government has been leasing land to private companies as Economic Land Concessions (ELCs), often for large-scale agricultural plantations of rubber trees and sugarcane. Under the cloak of operating as an ELC, the companies strip the concession and surrounding land of valuable trees, such as rosewood, to sell at profit. Much of the prized wood is exported to Vietnam and China, where it is highly sought after for furniture making.

Concessions are even granted inside so-called protected areas such as national parks.

“So, inside the protected areas, now local people have to buy water from the private company because they’ve blocked the waterway in order to keep the water to supply the rubber concessions,” Leng explained.

Born to a poor family just before the Khmer Rouge era, Leng grew up in a country still ravaged by civil war. He struggled to gain an education and eventually won a scholarship to study law. He then worked for various human rights organisations before founding the Cambodia Human Rights Task Forces, dedicating himself to land rights and protecting the forests that had sustained him and his family during difficult times.

“I’m very excited and very proud,” Leng said of winning the coveted award. “My family is very poor, so they’re very proud for me. It’s more like a dream. It is unbelievable.

Cambodia is a dangerous country for those exposing environmental crimes. Fellow activist Chut Wutty was gunned down in 2012, while a park ranger and police officer were killed while on patrol last November.

Leng vows to keep up his work, despite the dangers. “I think that I have only lived until now because I’m lucky,” he said. “If I’m unlucky, I will end up like my brother Chutt Wutty.”

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