By Clothilde Le Coz, Antoine Raab, Thomas Cristofoletti
In Cambodia’s Northern Prey Lang forest, one of the last remaining evergreen forests in Southeast Asia, a community is organizing itself to preserve its roots, traditions, and protect the land to which it belongs.
Fighting the formidable foes of climate change and deforestation, the community has learned resilience against difficult odds.
This is the story of faraway people, connected to each other by nothing less than a forest in distress.
With much of Cambodia’s forest land lost to trade and corruption, the fight to preserve Prey Lang forest has high stakes. What legacy will Cambodia pass on to future generations?
As they take off into the wild, surrounded by resin trees, the morning light illuminates four wanderers in their jungle sanctuary. “We call this place our home. This is where we feel protected,” they explain.
Hein Yeun, Loun Keuth and his dad Loun Hon, and their friend Srey Tey (see photo from left to right) belong to the Kuy indigenous community. One of the largest ethnic groups in Cambodia, the Kuy live in harmony with the forest, living mostly off what Prey Lang has to offer.
A relocation site for the Kuy minority during the Khmer Rouge period, the village of Phneak Rolerk is now home to over 100 families.
Located at the edge of the forest, it is one of the most remote places in Cambodia. Access is limited to one road, making it hard to get food and goods from the city. For the past two generations, the community has been living sustainably by relying on the forest and surrounding land to survive.
Prey Lang provides an abundant source of resources and blesses the Kuy community with farmland, food, medicine, rattan, vines, and other natural gifts that the villagers can use and rely on.
In Phneak Rolerk, life follows the organic rhythm of nature, rooted in the essence of community life: harmony with the environment.
Every week, Hon, Keuth,Yeun, Tey, and other members of their community enter the forest to tap the remaining resin trees.
“We have a deep connection with Prey Lang because we look for its natural products. The forest is like our nurturing mother,” Hon explains.
A 50-year old farmer, Hon learned how to collect resin from his parents. He now is passing the trade on to his 23-year-old son, Keuth. Proud of his Kuy roots and traditions, Keuth explains how they collect the precious extract.
“During the rainy season, it takes about a week to collect the resin from the tree. You have to come twice to the same tree. First, you notch the bark, burn the fluid and cover it with leaves. Then, a week later, you burn it back and collect it with a bucket,” he says.
Over the last few years, Hon and his fellow tappers have been able to harvest at least a barrel of resin a day, but this year they collected only half of that amount. Its value has also plummeted. In 2014, it was estimated at about $10.25 per 30 liters. In 2015, the villagers were receiving only half of that price. In Cambodia, resin tappers sell their product to traders and transporters, for domestic and foreign retailers.
Resin is a multipurpose material that has a variety of uses in the Mekong region, from sealing boats to varnishing homes. Its annual global value in Cambodia is estimated at $6 million.
“Resin is the main source of income for the community,” Hon explains. ”Losing the forest is like losing our living,” he says.
A spirit mandate
A community strongly tied to their animist beliefs, the Kuy people say that the Neaktah—or ancestral spirits— have blessed their presence in the forest. The Neaktah watch over people and places as long as they are paid respect through prayers and offerings.
Every year, the villagers gather to ask Neaktah for fertile land and seed their hopes for abundant harvests for the year to come. “We change every year and come back to the original land every three or four years,” Hon explains.
Saom Than, a 48-year-old farmer explains that the Neaktah are protective spirits that watch over the community. “Each village has their own, and the land belongs to them,” he says.
According to Kuy beliefs, the Neaktah ensure safety to the people by warding off imminent threats. “Neaktah always provide for the people. We can find fruits when we are hungry and we do not have to worry from wild animals. But now that the forest is gone, I do not feel like I am protected anymore,” Saom Than confides.
As Prey Lang’s trees vanish from the activities of illegal loggers, so too, the Kuy believe, do the Neaktah spirits. “If the forest dies, we die”—say many in the community, fearful that disappearing spirits will leave the Kuy people vulnerable and unprotected.
"What are we going to do?”
Wandering in the midst of down-turned yellow rice stems, Hon is worried about this year’s harvest. “Before, we had regular rain and our crops were better,” he says, showing dead corn. “Look at it now.”
The Kuy community has long been self-sufficient, mainly relying on harvesting rice and using products from the forest. But yields have declined over the past eight years and the community has observed changes in rainfall.
“Since 2007, it has become hotter and storms prevent us from going to the jungle and our farmland,” Srey Tey says, his voice heavy with regret. “I have been living here all my life. The trees do not produce as many fruits anymore. Usually, if there is enough humidity, they grow. But this is no more the case.” Tey says this has also contributed to the decline in resin earnings.
Nodding, Hon emphasizes the significance of regular rain. “In this village, the daily life of the community moves in time with the water. When there is rain, there is work,” he says.
As the sun rises over rows of rice fields, paddy workers are already feeling the immense heat. “It is supposed to be the beginning of the harvesting season, but we do not really know when this is anymore,” Hon says with a lump in his throat. “It has become random.”
The vicious cycle of deforestation
For the Kuy people, walking in the forest under such heat feels as oppressive as seeing it vanish. “Before, there were more trees and the rain was regular. If this year stays dry, we will collect less resin,” Hon says. “This is because of illegal logging.”
The loss of forest cover is likely having a major impact on local rain cycles and scientists estimate that deforestation is responsible for up to one-sixth of global carbon emissions, which contribute to warmer temperatures.
In addition to sheltering the Kuy people, Prey Lang also provides crucial habitat for endangered flora and fauna species, some of which are only found in Cambodia. But as the weather keeps changing, these species continue to disappear.
Traditional medicine collectors in the forest villages have observed the extinction of specific plants that had been used to treat various ailments. “The elder of the village tells me that it is very difficult to find effective plants nowadays,” Saom Than claims. “I sometimes still go to the forest to find medicine, but I never find everything I want,” he says.
In the Kuy dialect, Prey Lang means “our forest.” The community calls it home and has been living here for at least two generations. Spanning four provinces and covering 3,600 square kilometers, Prey Land is considered to be the largest evergreen forest in the country and likely the most expansive in Indochina.
A vanishing place
While Prey Lang is a source of life for the community, it is a constant source of worries too. Speaking in her home where villagers gather before heading out on patrols, Hon’s sister sees troubled times ahead. “As a minority, even if we can mark our land, we have no land title,” she says. This means they can be evicted at any time.
Local activist Phouk Hong, a 40-year-old mother of five, agrees and says the community’s claim to their beloved forest is under threat.
“Prey Lang was full of precious wood. This led companies to come here and cut the precious trees. There is almost none of them left and this has a great impact on the biodiversity and our livelihood,” she says.
One of her neighbors, Un Vien, is angry at the local authorities for what he says are injustices committed against the Kuy people. “The forest keeps vanishing since 1997,” he says. “When we carry small piece of wood to our houses, we can be arrested. But when whole trucks full of precious wood were going to Phnom Penh or Koh Kong to be shipped away, none of them are arrested. How come the local police cannot see this?” he angrily asks pointing at a felled tree log.
And as his voice slowly disappears between the leaves, Vien rushes trough a narrow path only to discover more felled trees. But this, he says, only strengthens his commitment to saving the forest.
Feeding over a million people
The loss of the Prey Lang forest would affect at least 1.5 million people in the Mekong region. Over time, the future of the forest could play an important role in the fate of the larger Mekong region.
“Prey Lang has valuable ecological importance [and its] ecosystem plays critical roles in [the] water regulation between the Tonle Sap and Mekong Basins,” a representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Phnom Penh explains. The Tonle Sap is one of the world’s most productive freshwater ecosystems. So productive that it has earned the lake the nickname “Cambodia’s beating heart.”
The Kuy community is well aware of the situation. Hong, for example, has become a dedicated activist that is committed to protecting the remaining forest for her, her family, and her community, but also all the people she knows are benefiting from Prey Lang.
“You start to realize what is going on when your livelihood is threatened. My family and I lived off the resin trees; now that they are less, we need to organize ourselves to protect them,” she says, fully aware of the change it will bring to her family’s life. “I have to go to the capital often to coordinate our actions with other activists. Sometimes, I wish I could just stay in the farm and take care of what I have here,” she admits.
But Hong says the fight is larger than her life. The threats to Prey Lang put the future of her family and the community in danger of losing their main source of income and their traditional way of life. For the Kuy people, protecting the forest has become a matter of survival.
In the dark of night, the glow of a fire leaves a faint light on faces weary from days of walking in the jungle. The group of ten lies awake in their makeshift camp, hoping for a strong breeze to fan their dying fire.
Voices carry from the distance, broken occasionally by the persistent sound of chainsaws. Loggers are working under the cover of darkness. Tonight, they will cut enough trees until their truck is loaded or they stop to catch a few hours of sleep.
Back at the camp, the Kuy patrol is conflicted. Some want to leave the camp now and catch the loggers in the act, but to do so could be dangerous.
“Safety comes first. At night, we cannot access nor see anything. We don’t know if the loggers possess any weapon or gun, and we are not enough to patrol,” Hong explains. “We should wait until the morning,” she concludes.
But the night will be short for most of the patrollers. No one can sleep listening to the loggers carry out their work.
The Kuy people feel at home in this forest. In better times, the fires were a place to tell stories from the past, and communicate regrets and hopes. This is where experiences are shared, questions asked and spirits built.
Tonight, the patrol lies still in the darkness, hoping that the sun will soon rise to shed light on the strangers attempting to steal Prey Lang’s trees.
It is still dark when the patrol rises and begins to pack up camp. Hong’s eyes sparkle as she explains their strategy. “We will leave now and walk until we reach the loggers’ area. At that point, we will split in teams to surround them, guided by the sound of their chainsaws. When the signal is given, we will all [rush in].”
Her voice is as soft and quiet as her footsteps, but the chainsaws are louder than ever before. Suddenly the patrol breaks out into a full run.
All of the loggers’ equipment is quickly seized. “We confiscate knives, axes and chainsaws. Everything that they can use against us and allow then to react violently,” Hong explains, struggling to catch her breath.
The patrollers then take the names of the two loggers and have them sign an agreement with their thumbprints never to come back to log in Prey Lang.
Although the Prey Lang Community Network has taken it upon themselves to defend the forest, they do not have any authority to arrest the loggers or store the wood and chainsaws. But they carefully retain these signed documents, hoping it will make a difference. “When wood is confiscated, we inform the local pagoda about it and everything is delivered there. We have had very bad experience with the local authorities in the past. They never collaborate with us to protect the forest, even if it is their duty. When we trust them and gave them what we confiscated, they generally gave all equipment back to the loggers. The community is doing the government’s job,” Hong explains.
Instead the patrol now uses acid to destroy the internal mechanism of the chainsaws. Sand is sometimes also used. One by one, they also cut the wooden planks they find on site.
Patrolling the forest
Every other month, about 20 network members will embark on similar journeys through the forest to catch illegal loggers. The bigger the group, the less likely they will be confronted with violence. “We all do this together,” Hong says.
More than a patrol, the journey through the forest is an ancestral Kuy practice. Like nomadic herders, they choose a new home every night and believe they are protected by the spirits of the forest. Although these journeys now carry a much more somber purpose, the Kuy share laughter and stories that remind them of the sovereignty of the surrounding trees.
Advocacy on the Internet
Deep in the forest, modernity is catching up quickly for the better.
Hong’s nephew Keuth is 23 years-old. He has been actively involved in the protection of Prey Lang since he was a child. “My father first joined the Network and I did like him.” he says proudly. “I belong to the Prey Lang Youth and I have gathered my friends in the village to join in protecting the forest.”
Keuth joined his dad on his first forest patrol a decade ago. “At first, I was scared,” he admits, “but now I am not afraid anymore.”
Keuth now takes part in every patrol and never leave his smartphone at home.
Keuth is a new generation of forest activist who sees value in using social media to raise awareness. “Posting on Facebook is really helpful because we can publish proof of illegal logging,” he says. “We want to let countries see what is happening to our forest and we would like them to help us protect it.”
Through social networks, the Prey Lang Community Network has been publishing regular reports to summarize the data collected. “I believe that if people see what is going on with their own eyes, they will take an interest. This is not only addressed to foreigners, I also want to let other Cambodians know how much of the Prey Lang forest is still standing,” Keuth explains. Up until September, the Network recorded at least 2,000 forest crimes in Prey Lang, from corruption to license abuses.
"What the Network is doing deters small loggers,” Fran Lambrick, an ethnobiologist and film maker who has been studying the Prey Lang forest in the past 5 years, says. “But the bigger fish—the ones logging illegally for large companies—are organized differently. They have moving sawmills for example, and they also treat the forest as it is their own property,” she explains, commending the courage of the communities fighting back.
But danger to the forest and its dwellers looms large. In recent months, there’s been an uptick in environmental activists being killed and arrested. Both Tey and Hong have received threats from local authorities. The death of Chut Wutty, a prominent environmental activist who was killed in 2012, stills weighs heavily on the community.
“If we do not take care of the forest, who will?” Hong asks. But the loggers are a persistent threat. A company was recently granted a license to log parts of the forest is a known foe. “We already kicked them out in 2000 when we submitted a petition to our King Sihanouk,” Vien explains. But King Sihanouk passed away in 2012 and this time, the concession will be legal. There’s a long road ahead, but the Kuy activists intend to keep defending their forest on their own, one log at a time.