For Cambodia’s largest swath of intact rainforest, the most important line of defense against the logging companies and vested political interests that are seeing it deforested is the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN), a local activist group of volunteer forest rangers that has been risking their lives to peaceably protect the area from illegal logging and large-scale land-grabbing since 2007.
Death threats from loggers and punishment from local authorities are however now leading the group and its partners to make changes in their efforts, after the country’s Ministry of Environment began outlawing their work earlier this year. The continued level of dedication to conservation recently earned the volunteer organization recognition as the Global Landscapes Forum’s 2020 Landscape Hero.
“The Ministry of Environment has banned [independent forest patrol] in the Prey Lang protected area and tried to [undermine our work] by saying we had a political agenda,” says a PLCN representative who wished to remain anonymous due to fear of reprisal. “Some of our members are facing arrest and have [had to flee] their villages because they tried to shoot pictures of illegal timber transportation. Local authorities are monitoring and following up on all our activities.”
At stake is mainland Southeast Asia’s last major lowland rainforest. Stretching across 5,000 square kilometers just west of the Mekong River, Prey Lang is home to rare biodiversity and endangered wildlife such as the Asian elephant, the giant ibis and the sun bear. Designated a wildlife sanctuary in 2016, the rainforest is also the spiritual and cultural home of many Indigenous communities, including the Kuy who originally gave the area the name Prey Lang, or “our forest.” The forest helps secure food, livelihoods and health for the some 200,000 people living adjacent to its landscape.
Cambodia has some of the world’s highest rates of deforestation. The country has seen roughly a 25 percent decline in its forest cover since 2000 according to Global Forest Watch, and Prey Lang has experienced an 11 percent loss in tree cover over the past two decades with a spike in recent months.
“The illegal logging increased immediately after the PLCN was barred from patrolling Prey Lang and has continued to intensify over the past six months,” says Ida Theilade, a senior researcher at the University of Copenhagen who received an innovation award in 2018 for helping the PLCN develop a mobile phone app to aid their work. “Logging also intensified in the vicinity of a so-called ‘reforestation project,’ Think Biotech, on the eastern border of the sanctuary. This company has illegally logged the resin and intimidated owners to sell their trees using threats and coercion. While COVID has been used as an [official] excuse to keep locals out of the sanctuary, it has not deterred illegal loggers.”
In the past, the PLCN has taken a stand against the forest’s destruction by patrolling the landscape on motorbike and using their smartphones and the app co-developed by Theilade, two NGOS and Cambodian partners to document illegal logging and forest conversion. The app enabled rangers to keep track of their findings, which were then compiled into reports and shared with national policy makers, the media and the general public.
But Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment has disputed this information, according to environmental news outlet Mongabay, and said the app uses outdated statistics. Elsewhere, government pushback has included the patrol bans, alleged surveillance of rangers and threats of arrest. PLCN rangers have been required to have permits in advance of patrols, leading to concerns about early warnings to loggers, and have also reportedly discovered confiscated chainsaws and other equipment back in the hands of the timber companies.
“Once the Ministry of Environment banned the forest patrols, we have increasingly turned to remote sensing,” says Theilade. “We are building a forest observatory to provide near real-time information on the status of the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary to the general public… The provision of freely available information will help and incentivize the Ministry of Environment to take action and enforce the forest law.”
Already, the PLCN has partnered with the Joint Research Centre of the European Union to coordinate verification on the ground of high-resolution satellite images of forest clearing.
Meanwhile, roads continue to be built in Prey Lang, and transport trucks continue to remove timber destined for foreign markets as forest clearing in Cambodia surges. Based on data and imagery from satellites, the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary saw a 73 percent increase in deforestation in 2019 compared to 2018. Cambodia experienced the world’s tenth-highest forest loss in 2019, much of it primary forests, according to data gathered by the University of Maryland.
These daunting trends underscore the importance of continuing the forest protection advocacy and watchdog role of the PLCN, supporters say.
The PLCN representative added: “The Landscape Hero honor has encouraged and motivated us to have new hope with international recognition. Some members who felt hopeless are returning to working with us once they saw the recognition from the international level.”