PHNOM PENH —
Tuy Sereivathana sits at his desk transfixed by the glow of his computer screen. On the walls of the environmentalist’s modest office are hung pictures of rare species of plants and animals found in the Cardamom Mountains, one of Cambodia’s few remaining wildernesses.
In 2010, Sereivathana became the first Cambodian to ever win the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, known as the Oscar’s for grassroots environmental campaigners. He now works for Flora and Fauna International (FFI) as its Cambodia country director.
Known as Uncle Elephant for his tireless work reducing human-elephant conflict, he also won an Emergent Explorer award from National Geographic in 2011.
In April, Cambodia got its second Goldman Prize winner, Ouch Leng, a lawyer and illegal logging investigator who has spent years documenting the destruction of Cambodia’s once pristine forests at the hands of powerful interests, many with links to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.
Sereivathana now spends little time on the ground doing project work, his time consumed by the pressures of running the numerous environmental projects FFI runs in the country, which he says has broadened his perspective on conservation.
“[This work] broadened my perspective, as I have to absorb more knowledge related to environmental works, not just elephants... especially in a leadership position,” he said.
Sereivathana says the award has played an important role contributing to his success.
“I want everyone to work from the heart, not just for the award. The award makes you famous, become an incredible person, but what is the most wonderful thing is if the environment in our country, our region in the Asia-Pacific or the world has been restored, and we live in harmony. That is the biggest award for all of us.”
Since 2012, he has been an active member in the Green Asia Forum, and also chairman of the board of directors of the Cambodian Rural Development Team.
He hopes to share his knowledge, experience and vision with the next generation.
Since the Goldman Prize was established 27 years ago it has honored 169 activists from 83 countries.
Cambodia has proven to be a dangerous place for environmentalists and is regularly ranked low in terms of the safety of environmental defenders.
In 2012, forest campaigner Chut Wutty was gunned down while investigating illegal logging in Koh Kong province.
Leng, who won this year’s prize, had previously gone into hiding, fearing for his family’s safety after exposing large-scale illegal logging by the Try Pheap Group, owned by a close associate of Hun Sen.
While acknowledging the risks, Sereivathana says he draws strength from his passion for the natural world.
“The more you are active in your environmental work, the more challenges you face.”
He now thinks that business owners and environmentalists need to understand each other better if Cambodia’s environment is to be rescued.
“With my role, I want to be a [goodwill] ambassador that brings these two groups of people to talk to each other, understand each other, reduce confrontation and build trust.”