Editor’s note: The Prey Lang Community Network, which works to protect Cambodian forests, has been selected by UNDP for an Equator Prize, for outstanding community organizing. In an interview with VOA Khmer, the group’s spokesman, Seng Sok Heng, says the government is “inactive” in protecting Cambodian forests, some of the last rainforest in Southeast Asia.
How was the Prey Lang Community Network selected for the prize?
This prize aims to award any community that works for the cause of society and the world in the field of protecting the forest and preserving the environment, which our community is doing.
What does getting this prize mean to the work of the group?
We believe that the prize will boost the value and status of environmentalist communities. It motivates the activists and environmentalists who are working to protect Prey Lang. The prize is priceless, which is why we are excited and proud. It’s a good example of a message to the government to take this seriously, and it motivates the forest-protecting communities.
How can the Prey Lang Community Network benefit from getting this prize?
As one of 21 winners, we are financed with $10,000. But beyond this funding, it is being titled as valuable, enormously motivating our community network to pursue the protection of Prey Lang.
How would you describe the community network in Prey Lang?
They are the ethnic communities that are historically networked from the old times. But there had been no joint working system of network. After the second-mandate government started ruling in 1998, the pace of development increased in the form of land concessions to private companies. That was the time the communities kicked off their campaigns against companies who have been clearing their ancestral forests.
It was not until 2007 that all of the communities inside Prey Lang integrated under a single Prey Lang Community Network from the four provinces where Prey Lang lies. From that time, we started working strategically, in the form of patrolling the forest, advocating with the government, and raising the awareness of the locals inside Prey Lang.
What are the latest developments and updates of Prey Lang, regarding its deforestation?
We’ve observed that despite the network’s efforts over the past 10 years, we haven’t been able to obstruct the criminal deforestation completely. From time to time, the deforestation continues apace. We’ve lost all of our luxury timber. From 2012, powerful people have been behind the deforesting of the secondary luxury timber. It keeps going, without interruption from relevant authorities, and possibly they are behind all the things happening in Prey Lang. In addition, a number of newcomers have been clearing the forested land and claimed it as their own. Prey Lang will vanish very soon if such things keep happening.
So far, what cooperation is there between the community and authorities?
We find it hard to work with the authorities, due to the fact that they’re involved in the deforestation on the ground. When we are doing our work, cracking down on deforestation, we always inform them and report to them. However, the feedback and response are very poor, unless there’s an order from the superior or the central government officials. But we notice that their cooperation with us has improved over the past two months.
What is the main challenge to Prey Lang Community Network to do its work?
It’s the intimidation from the local authorities. When we try to stop people from deforesting, likes seizing their chainsaws, we occasionally get death threats through phone calls from the criminals, and some people inside the authorities. Even though until today there have been no significant violent clashes, we face quarrels and confrontations with those tree cutters. Some authorities even attempt to arrest our members, but we always remain peaceful and cool down the situation.
Some activities by environmentalists like your group are sometimes blamed as anti-government or as part of the opposition. What do you have to say about that?
It is a fact that some figures in government do not acknowledge the truth and even defend their faults. Let’s look specifically at the activities of the Prey Lang Community Network. We’re not illegal, based on the laws in effect. We fulfill our duties as Khmer citizens to protect resources inherited from our ancestors. Natural resource do not belong to individuals, but are jointly possessed by us. We are disinterested otherwise, doing our work to protect our forests.
After winning this prize, what are the network’s next plans to pursue protection of Prey Lang?
This prize is an enormous contribution, as I said, to motivate our people, our communities, and environmentalists, in order to protect the remaining parts of Prey Lang. We’ll use these funds and motivation to advance our anti-deforestation activities in Prey Lang. Participation from people from all walks of life will keep Prey Lang surviving. We do not have to wait for a response from our inactive government, since it has gravely failed in policy on forest protection.