The Sound of Trees Falling

Colombia's natural resources are under threat-so are the people trying to protect them

“HURRY UP—YOU’RE TOO SLOW!” shouted Chut Wutty. It was the morning of 26 April, 2012, and the 48-year-old environmental activist was nervous. He had been driving through the jungles of Koh Kong for three days with two Cambodia Daily reporters, Olesia Plokhii and Phorn Bopha, and he had one last thing to show them. In the heart of the Cardamom Mountains, he believed yellow vine, a creeper known for its therapeutic properties, was collected and processed in violation of forestry law, under the protection of military police.

Of the events that occurred on that morning, the most lucid account available is the story Plokhii published in The Daily Beast, details of which she reiterated in an email interview. (Phorn refused interview requests.) According to Plokhii, Wutty led the reporters to an area in the forest where hundreds of feet of yellow vine had been cut and stored. All three took photographs as evidence. Returning to their jeep to leave the area, they were suddenly surrounded by four Kalashnikov-brandishing military policemen, who demanded that they hand over their cameras. A struggle ensued and the cameras were seized. With the evidence confiscated, it seemed they were free to go. However, their car wouldn’t start. Plokhii alighted from the car to help Wutty start the car, when she heard shots ring out, though she didn’t see who fired them. In panic, Plokhii and Phorn fled into the forest. When they emerged, minutes later, they saw the lifeless body of a military officer on the ground, in front of the car. The driver’s door was open and Wutty was in the seat, shot in the stomach, his khakhi shirt stained with blood. He was dead.

The reporters waited, fearing for their own lives, as other officers arrived at the scene. Finally, they were picked up and escorted away by an acquaintance.

The investigation that followed has been widely criticised as opaque, prejudiced and inefficient, with the government repeatedly changing their account of what happened. In October last year, the Cambodian court reached the conclusion that Wutty had been killed by one of the military police officers, who, in turn, was accidentally shot when his colleague tried to wrestle his gun away. It declared the investigation into Wutty’s death closed since his killer was dead, and released the second officer, suspending 18 months of his two-year sentence for the accidental shooting of his colleague. Human rights groups have called this verdict into question, challenging the court’s version of events, and have demanded that the case be reopened.

With Wutty’s death, Cambodia lost a central figure in the struggle against the plunder of natural resources in the country, from forested regions like Mondulkiri, Ratanakiri, Preah Vihear and, in Wutty’s case, Koh Kong, near the border with Thailand. After suffering collateral damage in the late 1960s during the Vietnam War, and then living through the violence of the Cambodian Civil War and the Khmer Rouge years, the country achieved relative political stability towards the end of the 20th century. But along with this stability came a systematic looting of the country’s natural resources, led by those who had come to power, who reaped many of the benefits. “Where the big money is to be made, it is in import-export, smuggling, wood trafficking, selling national parks,” an expert on the region, who wished to remain anonymous, told us from Bangkok.”With one signature at the bottom of a document, you can earn millions.”

Among the resources being plundered from Koh Kong is sand, much of which is exported to Singapore. The small city-state has long exhausted its own sand reserves and turned to its neighbours to get the raw material necessary to raise its skyscrapers. But, one after the other, Southeast Asian countries have imposed a ban or a limitation on sand dredging because of its ecological consequences. After Indonesia placed restrictions on sand exports in 2007, and Vietnam followed suit in 2009, Singapore turned to Cambodia. Today, in the hinterland of Koh Kong, mountains of mined sand dot the lush banks of the Tatai, Sre Ambel and Koh Por rivers. Here, sand is cleaned and stored before being transported by sea. Two of these sand depots are visible on the shore opposite Koh Kong town, which is located at an estuary. Faced with local protests, the Cambodian government had announced in 2009 a ban on sand exports. However, in its 2010 report, “Shifting Sands”, the British NGO Global Witness reported that the law only banned export of river sand, not sea sand; further, the report found that licenses for both kinds of dredging were still being issued, and that exports, too, had continued.

The report names two people as being directly linked to this lucrative business: Mong Reththy and Ly Yong Phat, both senators of the country’s ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). The latter has even been dubbed “the King of Koh Kong”, and his name, in gold letters, graces a marble slab in front of the bridge running over the estuary. Ly Yong Phat is close to Cambodia’s prime minister Hun Sen, and is a native of the Koh Kong province. His double nationality (he has a Thai passport that sports the name Pat Suphapha) allowed him to develop a strong network of buyers and sellers on both sides of the border and earn a fortune through cigarette trading, electricity production, resorts and gambling, which is illegal in Thailand. (It is also illegal in Cambodia, but authorities commonly turn a blind eye to casinos.) In an interview to Phnom Penh Post in July 2011, Ly Yong Phat defended dredging sand, saying, “My idea was just to drain the sand out of the river to make it deeper, not to sell sand.”

A 2007 diplomatic cable from the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, published by Wikileaks, also revealed another of Ly Yong Phat’s centres of interest: the Botum Sakor natural park, located 50 kilometres south of Koh Kong town, where he owns thousands of hectares of sugarcane plantations. But it isn’t only Ly Yong Phat who has spotted the potential of this virgin area. In 2008, the Cambodian government granted a 99-year lease on a 360-square kilometre parcel in the park to a Chinese real estate company, Tianjin Union Development Group. Plans include a gambling and hotel resort, an airport and a golf course. In 2011, an additional 91 square kilometres were allotted for a hydroelectric dam. Ironically, all along the national road, signs declare that Botum Sakor is a state-owned forest, and that sale of land to private owners is punishable with imprisonment.

In a coffee shop in the village of Kounkok, we met 31-year-old Tion Phon, who used to own a small retail shop. She has had to trade that life to move into a home without electricity or food. Looking enviously at the golden earrings of another woman in the coffee shop, Tion said, “I used to own jewellery. I had to sell it to get food since we have been here.” She smiled uneasily. “My life has completely changed,” she continued. “I have to wait for my husband all day long, the kids are ill-nourished and the land is no good. We cannot plant any seed.” A mother of four, Tion is one of the residents relocated by Union Development to a new village, also called Kounkok, a few kilometres from the original. They live in small wooden houses next to a road that will soon turn into a four-lane highway; some of these two-year-old houses are already on the brink of collapse. Most resettled villagers have no jobs, while others, to survive, illegally hunt in the forest and traffic wood.

A few kilometres away is the beautiful village of Samrong Takao. Coconut trees rise above blue waters, and waves lap quietly on a white sand beach. But sitting on his doorstep facing the sea, Sok Pech, a fisherman and cashew nut farmer said, “It is like Pol Pot’s regime, except for the fear of dying.” Along with his fellow villagers, Sok is next on Union Development’s relocation plan. “I had to accept less than a tenth of what my land is worth,” Sok said. “My family has been living here for generations and I will not leave.” But if he refuses the compensation offered by the company’s representative and the local authorities, Sok risks seeing his house destroyed without receiving anything in return. Bulldozers have already started levelling the path villagers will have to take to leave their homes. Union Development Group’s office in Phnom Penh did not reply to our interview request.

Though much of the Koh Kong province’s plunder has official sanction, some organisations continue to fight against it. In Chi Phat village, 20 kilometres north-west of Botum Sakor, we met a forest ranger (he asked not to be named), who described the difficulties he faced in protecting the forest in a region where illegal logging of rosewood is rampant. “We know the retailers but we cannot arrest them. They don’t stock anything and have intermediaries do the job,” the ranger said. Traffickers and rangers both have their network of paid moles. “It is necessary. Informants are constantly afraid,” he said. “If one of them is discovered, he or she can be severely beaten.”

Ironically, wood seized in Koh Kong is entrusted to the Forestry Administration, which sells it in dubious silent auctions in Phnom Penh, where select buyers meet to bid. Thus, no matter how many small players are arrested, the goods will reach their destination, generally Chinese firms or Chinese shops in Phnom Penh. In Koh Kong, those with money and power face almost no obstruction to getting what they want. As the ranger put it: “In Cambodia, you have the law. And you have the people above the law.” In September, even while Wutty’s trial was underway, in the Ratanakiri province the environmental journalist Hang Serei Oudom, who reported on illegal logging, was found in the boot of his car, killed with an axe.

Correction: References to "Chut Wutty" and "Phorn Bopha" in this article have been corrected online for spelling and style.

Alexandre Marchand is a French freelance journalist, previously based in Bangkok for the long form and investigation magazine Asies. He primarily covers India and Southeast Asia for French publications.

Clothilde Le Coz is a French freelance journalist based in Phnom Penh. She is Reporters Without Borders’ correspondent in Cambodia and former head of its Washington bureau.

Keywords: environment Chut Wutty Koh Kong illegal logging sand export Mong Reththy Ly Yong Phat natural resources