A surprising intervention tactic in Cambodia's ongoing battle against poachers and loggers has emerged among students in Kompong Speu's Oral District.
The students say they're fed up with strangers coming and going—carrying axes and chainsaws, machetes and machine guns—illegally depleting the forests of animals and trees, apparently without fear.
Students are drawing cartoons to highlight the effects of these crimes and are sending them to authorities in the hopes that something will be done in time.
Vong Reaksmei, 15, told VOA by phone she frequently sees offenders cutting down trees. She wants it to stop, so she drew pictures with other classmates and plans to send them to relevant environment and enforcement officials.
"I've drawn these pictures because the forest clearly is being disrupted and the wildlife is being destroyed," she said. "I've seen these things, and I feel regret, because the forest and wildlife are completely destroyed, and our future is tied to them."
Forest crimes are especially flagrant in Trapeang Chor commune, on the border of the Oral Wildlife Sanctuary, about 70 kilometers west of Phnom Penh, according to several residents who spoke to VOA anonymously for fear of their safety.
"The forest is completely destroyed, and the land is divided," one local man said. "Some trees have been marked for logging, and now the strangers are building cottages in the area, and they grab the land too."
"They cut the trees with chainsaws, deep in the forest, and they hire villagers to cut trees and drive the wood through the village to be sold," another woman said. "There will be no more big logs in the future. When locals cannot prevent it, with big businessmen who have machines and trucks, they will also cut the trees to be sold as coal. They don't have another livelihood."
Nearly 100 primary school children, aged 10 to 16, drew cartoons, and many signed them. The bright, glittery drawings rebuke these illegal activities and explain why animals need the forest. They warn of animal extinction, flooding and erosion. In their pictures, criminals saw trees while poachers kill wildlife. Mountains are bare, and the land is stripped clean.
Primary school student Khar Kunthea, 14, said she has seen people cutting trees up to a meter in diameter. It saddens her, she said, that the trees are cut day after day.
"I hope that by speaking out that authorities can recover the forest," she said.
"I drew these pictures because I want to address the destruction of the forest and the killing of wildlife," she said. "I don't want them to cut the trees and kill the wildlife, because the forest and wildlife are almost extinct."
Birds, snakes, monkeys and other animals speak their woes.
"Don't destroy the forest. It is my home," advises an elephant drawn by 15-year-old Theun Thim, of Chrork Teak Primary School.
"Please help protect me because wildlife like me is close to extinction," a deer implores in a picture by Chem John, 16, from the same school, while a tree warns: "If you cut me down and destroy me, there will be a flood."
Kong Heang, governor of Kompong Speu, rejected the student's accusations. There is no major illegal logging in Oral, he said, because much of the area is protected by strict measures from provincial authorities and the Ministry of the Environment, as well as non-governmental organizations.
"Nowadays, there are two NGOs to help watch for illegal activity," he said. "We have better protection. No big illegal logging occurs in this area. There are only small cases where people cut the wood and load it into a car, which is normal, but to load it into trucks, there is no more."
The governor said his police have acted on illegal logging and deforestation many times, confiscating tools and arresting perpetrators.
But villagers say that armed forces like soldiers and the police, backed by businessmen, are those who actually cut down trees, confiscate land and, instead of protecting the forest, set up checkpoints to squeeze money from travelers.
Meanwhile, a complaint signed by local men and women has been submitted to public and non-government agencies, giving the name, age, and address of signatories, some as young as five.
The petition demands, among other things, that the government and local and international groups stop illegal logging and land grabs, curb related corruption and support those who preserve the land.
The World Bank last year announced $14 million for forest protection. In the past, the World Bank was criticized for not doing enough by the forest monitor Global Witness, an organization that has since been banned from the country.
Cambodia has promised donor countries many reforms, including in forestry, but donors remain concerned that the loss of forest will disrupt the lives of Cambodians living in rural areas now and in the future. Much illegal logging is linked to high-level corruption, making authorities hesitant—or unable—to curb the practice.