A Cam­bo­dian com­mu­nity pro­tects its sa­cred for­est

Asian Geographic - - Picturesqu­e -

A spir­ited man­date

One of the largest eth­nic groups in Cam­bo­dia, the Kuy com­mu­nity lives in har­mony with the for­est. For them, life fol­lows the or­ganic rhythm of Na­ture, rooted in the essence of com­mu­nity life.

“We call this place our home. This is where we feel pro­tected,” they ex­plain. A com­mu­nity strongly tied to their an­i­mist be­liefs, the Kuy peo­ple says 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.

Saom Than, a 48-year-old farmer, ex­plains that the Neak­tah en­sure safety for the peo­ple by ward­ing off im­mi­nent threats. “They al­ways pro­vide for the peo­ple. We can find fruits when we are hun­gry, and we do not have to worry about wild an­i­mals,” he says.

In the Kuy di­alect, Prey Lang means “our for­est”. For the com­mu­nity, this is home; they have been liv­ing here for at least two decades. More than a spir­i­tual place, the for­est is also “a nur­tur­ing mother”. This is how Hon, a 50-year-old farmer, ex­plains it: “We have a deep con­nec­tion with the for­est be­cause we look for its nat­u­ral prod­ucts.”

The Kuy peo­ple pay homage to the for­est for pro­vid­ing them with re­sources, bless­ing the com­mu­nity with farm­lands, food, medicine, rat­tan, vines, and other nat­u­ral gifts that the vil­lagers can use and rely on. This is how the Kuy com­mu­nity has been self-suf­fi­cient for the past two gen­er­a­tions.

“We have a deep con­nec­tion with the for­est be­cause we look for its nat­u­ral prod­ucts”

Also a resin tap­per, Hon learnt the prac­tice from his par­ents, and is now pass­ing the trade on to his 23-year-old son, Keuth, ev­ery week, as they ven­ture deeper into the for­est to col­lect the pre­cious ex­tract. “Resin is the main source of in­come for our com­mu­nity,” he says. But yields have de­clined over the past eight years, and the com­mu­nity has ob­served a change in rain­fall. “Be­fore, there were more trees and the rain was reg­u­lar. If this year stays dry, we will col­lect less resin,” Hon says. He be­lieves that this is be­cause of il­le­gal log­ging.

A Van­ish­ing Point

Span­ning four prov­inces and cov­er­ing 3,600 square kilo­me­tres, Prey Lang is con­sid­ered the largest ev­er­green for­est in the coun­try, and is likely the most ex­pan­sive in In­dochina. But over the last 10 years, Cam­bo­dia’s de­for­esta­tion rate has in­creased more rapidly than that of any other coun­try in the world.

A re­cent re­port pub­lished through a col­lab­o­ra­tion of NGOS – the MO­SAIC Pro­ject, CHRTF, N1M and Mother Na­ture Cam­bo­dia – states that the Cam­bo­dian gov­ern­ment granted at least 32 eco­nomic land con­ces­sions (ELCS) in Prey Lang, “clear­ing spirit forests and grave­yards with­out con­cern”. The re­port also re­veals that a for­est “restoratio­n pro­ject is found to be clear-cut­ting dense, valu­able for­est and trans­form­ing it into a monocrop aca­cia plan­ta­tion”.

For Fran Lam­brick, a Bri­tish en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tist who has been study­ing the Prey Lang for­est for five years, con­ces­sions are a ve­hi­cle for de­for­esta­tion.

“When com­pa­nies come for the land, they start clear­ing the for­est and ex­ploit­ing valu­able tim­ber, even out­side the con­ces­sion bound­ary. There are all kinds of cor­rup­tion that help make it hap­pen,” she says.

Sci­en­tists es­ti­mate that de­for­esta­tion is responsibl­e for up to one-sixth of global car­bon emis­sions, which con­trib­ute to warmer tem­per­a­tures. As de­for­esta­tion is responsibl­e for 19 per­cent of green­house gas emis­sions re­leased into the at­mos­phere each year, the coun­try has also been driv­ing cli­mate change.

The United Na­tions es­ti­mates that the loss of Prey Lang would not only have an im­pact on the cli­mate, but would also af­fect at least 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple in the Mekong re­gion.

“Prey Lang has valu­able eco­log­i­cal im­por­tance [and its] ecosys­tem plays a crit­i­cal role in the water reg­u­la­tion be­tween the Tonle Sap and Mekong basins,” a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the UN De­vel­op­ment Pro­gramme (UNDP) in Ph­nom Penh ex­plains. The Tonle Sap is one of the world’s most pro­duc­tive

Sci­en­tists es­ti­mate that de­for­esta­tion is responsibl­e for up to one-sixth of global car­bon emis­sions, which con­trib­ute to warmer tem­per­a­tures

fresh­wa­ter ecosys­tems – so pro­duc­tive, in fact, that it has earned the lake the nick­name of “Cam­bo­dia’s beat­ing heart”.

As Prey Lang’s trees van­ish due to the ac­tiv­i­ties of il­le­gal log­gers, so too, the Kuy be­lieve, do the Neak­tah spir­its. “If the for­est dies, we die,” say many mem­bers of the com­mu­nity, who are fear­ful that the dis­ap­pear­ing spir­its will leave the Kuy peo­ple vul­ner­a­ble.

“Now that the for­est is gone, I do not feel like I am pro­tected any­more,” says Saom Than.

De­fend­ing their roots

Fac­ing the need for ac­tion to stop the de­struc­tion of the for­est, the Kuy peo­ple ral­lied to­gether to pa­trol their neigh­bour­ing for­est and mon­i­tor any il­le­gal de­for­esta­tion. The re­sult of this ef­fort is the Prey Lang Net­work (PLN), which was cre­ated in 2007. Com­pris­ing 339 com­mu­ni­ties span­ning across four prov­inces, the net­work is re­liant on fund­ing from for­eign coun­tries and or­gan­i­sa­tions to be able to co­or­di­nate pa­trols to catch il­le­gal log­gers.

Ev­ery other month, about 20 mem­bers of the net­work em­bark into the for­est to catch il­le­gal log­gers, us­ing acid to de­stroy the in­ter­nal mech­a­nisms of the chain­saws. The big­ger the group, the less likely they are to en­counter vi­o­lence.

Hong, a 40-year-old farmer and ac­tivist, has been pa­trolling the for­est and ral­ly­ing her com­mu­nity to pro­tect it. “I re­alised what was hap­pen­ing to the for­est when I could not live from col­lect­ing resin any­more,” says the vi­va­cious woman. “We had to act. This is how I joined the Prey Lang Net­work and start to be­come more ac­tive.” A mother of five, she has been re­ly­ing on Prey Lang’s re­sources all her life.

“If we do not take care of the for­est, who will?” she keeps ask­ing. Hong knows that this fight is larger than her life, and so she keeps de­fend­ing Prey Lang, one log at a time.

Al­though the net­work has taken it upon it­self to de­fend the for­est, they do not have any author­ity to ar­rest the log­gers or im­pound the wood and chain­saws.

“When wood is con­fis­cated, we in­form the lo­cal pagoda about it and ev­ery­thing is de­liv­ered there,” ex­plains Hong. “We have had very bad ex­pe­ri­ences with the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties in the past. They never col­lab­o­rate to pro­tect the for­est, even if it is their duty. The com­mu­nity is do­ing the gov­ern­ment’s job.”

To Lam­brick, their work plays an im­por­tant role in rais­ing aware­ness. “What the net­work is do­ing de­ters small log­gers. But the big­ger fish – the ones log­ging il­le­gally for large com­pa­nies – are or­gan­ised dif­fer­ently and they treat the for­est as if it is their own prop­erty,” she ex­plains, com­mend­ing the courage of the net­work.

In late 2015, the PLN was one of the win­ners of the 2015 Equa­tor Prize, which they re­ceived in Paris.

En­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists are of­ten ha­rassed by the Cam­bo­dian of­fi­cials, and it is not un­com­mon for the mem­bers of the PLN to re­ceive threats from lo­cal au­thor­i­ties.

The United Na­tions es­ti­mate that the loss of Prey Lang would not only have an im­pact on the cli­mate, but would also af­fect at least 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple

The death of Chut Wutty, a prom­i­nent en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist and com­mu­nity men­tor who was killed in 2012, stills weighs heav­ily on the com­mu­nity. In March 2016, a mem­ber of the net­work was at­tacked with a ma­chete while he was asleep dur­ing a pa­trol. En­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists from all over Cam­bo­dia add to this ever-grow­ing list of vic­tims of vi­o­lence, so much so that Cam­bo­dia was named one of the most dan­ger­ous coun­tries for en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists by Global Wit­ness.

Like no­madic herders, they choose a new home ev­ery night, ly­ing un­der the cover of dark­ness to avoid de­tec­tion, com­forted by the be­lief they are pro­tected by the Neak­tah. Al­though their mis­sion car­ries a som­bre pur­pose, the Kuy share laugh­ter and sto­ries that re­mind them of the sovereignt­y of the sur­round­ing trees. More than an en­vi­ron­men­tal pa­trol, this mis­sion strug­gles to pre­serve the sa­cred, so that an­ces­tral Kuy prac­tice might en­dure.

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