Tree Predators: Corporate Lumber Trafficking Destroys Forests And Indigenous Lives In Cambodia

Cambodia has the third-highest deforestation rate on the planet, with more than 85% of its exports going to China. According to the Global Forest Watch, the country has lost more than 2.60 Mha of its tree cover from 2001 to 2021, a decrease of 30% since 2000 – equivalent to an area the size of Sicily. Nine out of every 10 trees cut down in the Prey Lang rainforest – the “Amazon of Southeast Asia” – are illegally removed. Some Buddhist monks have gone as far as performing tree ordination ceremonies to protect their territory, wrapping trees in Buddhist robes and consecrating them to deter the impoverished labourers who largely carry out the deforestation.

The labourers in question, however, are under the grip of high officials located in the palaces of power. The loot they cut down is sent to the capital of Phnom Penh and from there is smuggled to Vietnam, where it is then exported abroad.

“Cambodia’s rampant illegal logging poses an existential threat to the country’s remaining primary forests and to the [I]ndigenous peoples who depend on them for their livelihoods, culture and spiritual practices,” said Richard Pearshouse, Amnesty International’s Crisis and Environment Officer. “Cambodia’s approach to conservation is characterized by official corruption and total disregard for the rights of [I]ndigenous peoples. If the Cambodian authorities do not change course soon, the country’s protected forests will be illegally logged into oblivion.”

About 24 different Indigenous communities live in Cambodia. For the Kuy, one of the largest of these groups, the forest has been a precious source of income for entire generations. Until a few years ago, the resin was sold for up to 60 cents per kilogram, with resin trees being handed down from father to son. The Kuy use the resin as a natural antibiotic and lantern fuel. Now, however, it is a much sought-after product for lacquering wood and waterproofing boat hulls, and loggers have descended as a consequence. “Since 2016,” Houn Sopheap, one of the leaders of the Kuy Indigenous community, told Reportagen’s journalists, “we have been losing more trees since Prey Lang became a protected forest.”

In recent years, about 70% of the resin trees have been lost in Prey Preah Roka, another activist told Amnesty International. “Many people from outside come to steal our trees when we are not in the forest, especially during the rice season, when we plant saplings or harvest rice. This is when they are stolen the most because people know that we are busy in our fields, which are far from Prey Preah Roka,” said the activist, who Amnesty Internation identified as “Thyda” during the interview. “Sometimes 30 or 40 resin trees are cut down in one day.”

The population is increasingly afraid to denounce these abuses, and although there are dozens of activists who fight daily to preserve the forests and the people who live there, those who dare to speak up about the loggers’ atrocities are murdered. This was the case of Chut Wutty, an environmental activist and creator of the Natural Resource Protection Group. The Cambodian military murdered him because it, along with the economic and political powers who continue to plunder the country’s natural resources, considered him a direct threat.

The government investigation into Wutty’s murder was closed within three days. Those involved were never held accountable.

By buying wood from Vietnam, Europe is also complicit in this massacre of land. Many reports have been sent in to prevent these crimes, showing how at least 17 companies are involved in the lumber trafficking, but the E.U. continues to reject them, even as it creates more and more laws to try to regulate the market.

Today, one cannot talk about the climate crisis without taking a share of responsibility for the problem. We can neither stand still in the face of injustice nor continue to silence and ignore those most affected by the resulting catastrophes. Cambodia’s dramatic situation is a call to action – climate equity must be based in listening to the local Indigenous peoples who have been fighting for environmental protections for years.