NY Times: Fighting to Save Forests in Cambodia, an Activist Puts Himself at Risk

By MIKE IVES — PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Ouch Leng, an environmental activist who operates undercover to fight illegal logging, has had some close scrapes in what is by all accounts a hazardous line of work — 14 Cambodian land and environmental defenders were killed between 2005 and 2014, the London-based advocacy group Global Witness has reported.

For a few hours a couple of years ago, Mr. Leng feared he was going to be next. He and some other activists had stopped inside Virachey National Park, near the Vietnamese border, to ask some loggers for directions to a nearby timber concession.

But the loggers, their suspicions aroused, summoned a cadre of Cambodian soldiers, who searched the activists and then ordered them at gunpoint to drive to a ranger station about four hours away. “We were all panicked,” Mr. Leng said.

They escaped by alertly veering onto a dirt path that was too narrow for the soldiers’ trucks and driving all night to safety. “It was worth the risk,” Mr. Leng said, noting that he had managed to conceal from the soldiers two cameras he was carrying that were loaded with photos and videos of illegal logging.

For Mr. Leng, mortal danger is an acceptable occupational hazard in a country where powerful tycoons operate vast illegal timber concessions inside protected forests — some of Southeast Asia’s best, and last, reservoirs of biodiversity.

In dozens of trips since 2011, he has gone undercover, posing as a manual laborer in the logging industry, to film and photograph illegal logging and track timber from Cambodia’s forests to its seaports. He has also carved out a profile in the capital, Phnom Penh, as a prominent critic of logging companies and the government’s forestry policies.

“Many people from local and international N.G.O.s are not willing to work with me because they don’t want to deal with sensitive issues,” Mr. Leng said, referring to nongovernmental organizations.

He added with a chuckle, “They don’t even want to join me for a meal or a drink.”

Mr. Leng’s supporters say he has an unusually broad range of assets, including a national network of contacts, a law degree, broad knowledge of the forests and an insatiable urge to document illegal logging in Cambodia’s rugged borderlands.

But they worry that those assets could also make him a target of violence as his prominence grows.

“Sooner or later, he has to decide if he wants to be public or undercover,” said Marcus Hardtke, a veteran environmental activist in Phnom Penh. “He cannot be both forever.”

Cambodia’s national forest cover has fallen to between 55 and 60 percent from 73 percent in 1993, Forest Trends, a research group in Washington, said in a 2015 report. Much of the deforestation since 2005 has been a result of illegal logging in and around protected forests that are included in land concessions under Cambodia’s opaque forestry rules, the report said.

Mr. Leng said that he had visited 50 or 60 such concessions, often in tandem with local volunteer activists, and that one of his primary targets had been Try Pheap, a prominent Cambodian businessman with logging operations throughout the country.

In January, Cambodia said it had canceled 26 land concessions, including two held by Mr. Pheap. Those were spread over nearly 50,000 acres inside Virachey National Park that had been scrutinized in a 2013 report by Mr. Leng’s one-man advocacy group, the Cambodia Human Rights Task Forces.

“The corruptive ties that he was able to expose between timber magnates and the government really helped, I think, raise a lot of awareness both within Cambodia and outside” about the downsides of land concessions, said David Gordon, executive director of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that awarded Mr. Leng a $175,000 prize on Monday for his work.

Other supporters said Mr. Leng’s investigative reports had put more public pressure on Cambodia’s government and timber industry than well-funded international donors and conservation nonprofits were able — or willing — to exert.

Mr. Leng is “fearless in his willingness to expose the big guys,” said Sarah Milne, a lecturer at Australian National University in Canberra who studies Cambodia’s forests. “It’s much easier to look the other way.”

The Try Pheap Group did not respond to a list of emailed questions.

Sao Sopheap, a spokesman for the Environment Ministry, said the government was working with international conservation groups to eliminate illegal logging inside land concessions. But he added that land-reform measures, including a 2012 moratorium on new concessions, were not a response to pressure from activists.

“Those activists concentrating on advocacy are probably not very helpful,” Mr. Sopheap said in a telephone interview, without mentioning Mr. Leng. “They probably are working on propelling their own interests.”

Mr. Leng was born in 1975, just as the Khmer Rouge began a four-year reign of terror in Cambodia that left an estimated 1.7 million people dead. His family was forcibly relocated from Takeo Province, near Phnom Penh, to the northern province of Preah Vihear, on the border with Thailand.

In the early 1980s, the family survived by selling rattan it harvested in nearby forests and eating wild fish and game. “I fell in love with the forest and the land because they were our only way to survive,” Mr. Leng, who has a boyish face and speaks with a rapid-fire delivery, said during an interview at his home on the dusty outskirts of Phnom Penh.

After graduating from law school in 1997, Mr. Leng said, he worked for more than a decade as an investigator for two Cambodian human rights groups and later on a forest-mapping project funded by the United States Agency for International Development. But he said his work had often prevented him from doing what he was determined to do: aggressively fight illegal logging.

He began working independently about five years ago and has spent months posing as a cook or a logger and hanging out with company employees to gain access to forests and logging camps within timber concessions. His reports are based on his covert photos and videos, along with documents from local journalists, civil servants and other informers that he analyzes at his home office, he said.

A primary goal, he added, is to determine how the illegal logging that he witnesses is linked to the global timber supply chain and the Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodian investors behind the logging projects.

Mr. Hardtke, the environmental activist, said Mr. Leng’s advocacy work was broadly similar to that of Chut Wutty, a high-profile Cambodian activist who was shot dead in April 2012 in a logging camp. But Mr. Hardtke said Mr. Leng took a more analytical approach.

Winning the Goldman Environmental Prize could raise Mr. Leng’s profile and make it harder for the Cambodian authorities to bring defamation cases against him, but the award could also make him more of a target when he works in remote areas, Mr. Hardtke added.

Mr. Leng’s wife, Chan Vorn, said the family home had been monitored by plainclothes men on motorbikes with police license plates. She became more concerned for his safety, she added, after reading that a previous Goldman prize winner, the activist Berta Cáceres, was killed in Honduras in March.

“I’m so worried about my husband because our children are still very young” and should not grow up fatherless, she said in a jittery voice.

But Mr. Leng said he was unfazed by security concerns and planned to continue his undercover investigations and public advocacy.

“If I don’t do this,” he said, “who will?”

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