Murders in the forest
Since Apr. 26, a crusading forestry activist, a muckraking journalist and a 14-year-old girl have been killed in Cambodia because they tried to safeguard the country’s dwindling land reserves. They are all victims of a decade-long battle over Cambodia’s ecological future, a fight that in the past two years has turned more bloody and corrupt. Their deaths offer the world a stark vision of how crony capitalism has replaced totalitarianism as the threat to human rights in Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, the price of a human life pales in comparison with a blank check.
I worked at the Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh for one year (2011-2012), covering the oil business, land evictions, the environment and forestry. That’s why I was with Chut Wutty, the nation’s foremost forest conservationist, on Apr. 26 when he was killed. On the third day of an investigation into illegal logging in Cambodia’s Cardamom mountains, we stopped at what Wutty said was a military-controlled illegal logging outpost. There, he was shot dead during a confrontation with soldiers who were protecting the site and preventing us from leaving. A soldier was also shot dead under mysterious circumstances in the firefight, although Wutty did not fire any shots. When the murderers began concocting a cover-up, a colleague and I were threatened with death. “Just kill them both,” they icily said within earshot of us. After six hours of paralyzing fear and pacing at the scene of the murder, we were transferred from police custody into the care of our editor in chief as night fell.
We were lucky. Less than three weeks later, government security forces fatally shot 14-year-old Heng Chantha during an armed siege against villagers resisting a land eviction by a well-connected agricultural company.
Now, the latest victim is Hang Serei Odom, 42, a reporter for a small Khmer-language newspaper who wrote in early September about military collusion in the deforestation of a lush region on Cambodia’s northeast border with Vietnam. His killing was ghastly: He was found dead from two ax wounds, one to the back of his head, the other to his forehead, and stuffed in the trunk of his car. A military police officer and his wife have been charged with premeditated murder after the victim’s shoes were found in and around the couple’s home.
The state-sponsored violence in Cambodia is a local calamity with global repercussions. It underscores the ravenous behavior of China as it scours every corner of Southeast Asia for rare luxury timber and industrial-purpose woods to feed its booming economy. Although demand is high for all timber, luxury wood, which differs from industrial-grade logs due to its elegant appearance, physical makeup and species of origin, is incredibly valuable, raising the stakes for those harvesting it. Around the world, 700 activists and others have been slain in the past decade as they fought to preserve the few scraps of forest and ancestral land that have not yet been clear-cut by often disreputable multinational corporations.
China’s hunger for wood is insatiable. It is the number one global importer of timber, both legal and illegal. According to UK-based think tank Chatham House, it shipped $3.7 billion in stolen logs in 2008. Cozying up to corrupt politicians and offering millions in no-strings cash, Chinese lumber concerns have decimated vast swaths of Cambodia and since 2000 have imported large amounts of illegally procured timber from Russia, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia and Indonesia. In all, 6,200 square kilometers of forest –an area twice the size of Rhode Island – have been gutted in Cambodia in the past two decades, and the Chinese are behind the most extravagant development projects.
Malaysian, South Korean and Vietnamese firms are also involved in the clear-cutting. Along with Chinese companies, their ability to buy agricultural and mining concessions in ostensibly protected forests has prompted the environmental group Global Witness to describe Cambodia as a “mafia state.” The murders of Odom and Wutty are terrifying messages that exposing timber bandits can be a death sentence. Since 2005, at least three other journalists have been threatened with retribution for their coverage, and an activist has been hacked to death.
“Cambodia’s donors must use their influence to force the government to change, rather than propping up a corrupt and violent regime,” Global Witness founding director Patrick Alley emailed me after learning of Odom’s slaying. “How many more deaths will it take?”
Sam Lawson of Chatham House says forests around the world will be “worse than they are now” in the next decade. The impact will be seen in climate change, displacement and a world bereft of trees. “The illegal logs still being cut each year, laid end to end, would stretch ten times around the Earth,” noted a Chatham House report authored by Lawson. Nigeria, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam are also badly gutted, according to global experts.
What is to be done about blood wood? It’s not just a problem abroad. America is the top importer of illegally sourced wood products. Most illegal timber, everywhere, is used as plywood or veneers for commercial and home construction. But illegal loggers increasingly target luxury timbers like rosewood, which are shaped into guitars and fine furniture before ending up in the United States and Asia. Although the U.S. government took a tough stance on Gibson Guitars for buying illegal rosewood and ebony from India and Madagascar, many more luxury pieces can be traced back to the very forests that activists and journalists in Cambodia seek to protect.
Odom, who leaves behind a pregnant wife, was working in a province notorious for wildcat logging and had just written about an army police officer who was transporting illegally cut timber. Typically, that wood would be ferried by oxcart and military vehicle into Vietnam, then on to China, before landing in America. It will make a lovely sounding guitar that will drown out the screams from the land of its origin.
The international community remains unwilling to pressure the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen to end its connivance with lumber profiteers despite repeated outcries from Cambodia’s oppostion party. Yet foreign donors provide Cambodia with half its annual budget. This consigns the country’s fabled forests to a death by a thousand cuts.
“Without forest we would have no access to clean water as the source of life,” Chut Wutty said in an interview several months before his murder. “Forest is like the skin covering our body.”
And Cambodia is being skinned alive.
PHOTO: People light candles at the killing site of Cambodian anti-logging activist Chut Wutty in Koh Kong province May 11, 2012. About three hundred people traveled to the Cardamom Mountains in Koh Kong province, in Southwestern Cambodia, to investigate alleged illegal logging and commemorate the death of slain prominent environment activist Chut Wutty. Communities, affected by deforestation, wanted to show the government that they will continue fighting even though their activist was killed. REUTERS/Samrang Pring