“Prey Lang”, meaning “our forest” in local indigenous language, refers to one of the largest primordial forests not only in Cambodia but in the whole Indochinese peninsular.
The forest, home to spiritual beliefs, rich biodiversity and significant ecosystem services relevant to local inhabitants as well as Cambodia as a country, has been for two decades under multiple threats of deforestation and contamination due to legal and illegal logging, agro-industries, and mining activities. In an effort to protect the forest, the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) was established by local communities that were strongly affected by these industrial developments and which successfully mobilized to counteract them (1).
The forest, covering an area of around 360,000ha (100,000ha of them pristine primordial forests), is inhabited by around 200,000 locals from 339 villages, mainly Kuy ethnic minority. The Kuy as well as another 500,000 locals living in the surrounding areas heavily depend on the forest by tapping resin trees and collecting Non-Timber-Forest Products (NTFP) such as wine and rattan. Many of their spiritual beliefs are associated to the area, trees and animals. Around 50 endangered species live in the forest, and crucial ecosystem services are provided to locals as well as to whole Cambodia. It is an important watershed, regulating water flow and hydrology of the large surrounding areas including the Tonle Sap, and it is also a significant ‘woodshed’, with the highest carbon sequestration rates in the region (1). Beyond its socio-economic services (2), it has tremendous biological and cultural richness, making it impossible to “put a value on the forest – it’s equivalent to life itself” (local women in an interview, see video).
Already in the 1990s, heavy logging occurred under official concessions. After pressure from international donors and local environmental groups since the year 2000, a nationwide logging moratorium was achieved in 2002. However, illegal logging continued and two dozen gold and iron ore mining concessions were granted in the area. Hydroelectric dams were other target projects and moreover, the government granted several Economic Land Concessions (ELC) to rubber and cassava agro-industry companies. 40,000ha of them were located in the central pristine forest area (1;3). All this led to drastic increases in deforestation; (illegal) logging of timber and of around 250,000 resin trees; soil and water contamination due to cyanide use for gold mining; increased habitat fragmentation, due to new roads; cut-off of access ways for locals due to demarcation of concession land; criminalization of protesters and a general loss of livelihood resources for locals. In spite of legal requirements, environmental impact assessments were not conducted (1;4).
In 2007, after years of campaigning by local groups, the PLCN was established, formed mainly by local communities and Kuy indigenous. Chut Wutty a forest activist shot in 2012 the Cardamom Mountains investigating illegal logging, was strongly involved in the PLCN. Acts of resistance included actions on the ground, such as burning of illegal timber; forest patrols; seizing of work materials; mapping of illegal logging; biodiversity surveys and so on. It also included lobbying in Phnom Penh with alternative development proposals, as well as mobilizations to receive international attention, such as through ‘occupying’ the forest; petitions; and protest marches supported by Buddhist groups, or villagers dressed up as ‘avatars’ of Prey Lang. Since 2009, the PLCN and Wutty petitioned to turn 763,100ha of forest area into protected area, based on community management. In 2011, a sub-decree was issued to protect a smaller area, which was a positive step forward; although communities fear that they will not be involved in the management, producing exclusions as well as further illegal logging. The formal cancellation of 40,000 ha of ELCs in 2012 was a ‘rare victory’ (3), but also here, the government hasn’t yet enforced companies to fully stop their operations (1;3;4).