Brutal attack stiffens Cambodian woman’s resolve to protect forest

Phorn Sopheak walking in the forest behind her house in a remote village in Kampong Cham commune, Sambor district of Kratie province, Cambodia. Photo: Savann Oeurm / Oxfam America

An environmental defender survives injury, and is more committed than ever.

Phorn Sopheak was sick with a fever when she went into the Prey Lang forest in central Cambodia on a regular patrol to make sure illegal loggers were not cutting down trees. The 26 year old was sleeping in her hammock at 1:30 in the morning when one of her friends saw someone with a flashlight approach her. A moment later, Sopheak woke up: She had been brutally slashed in the foot with an ax or machete and was bleeding heavily.

I pulled my leg up and there was blood everywhere. I saw it and I just started screaming and looked away immediately because I was so scared,” she told a reporter from the Cambodia Daily.

Her colleagues brought her to Kratie, the major town in her home province of the same name. She says no one knows who attacked her that night, but Sopheak and others in the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) think it was one of the many illegal loggers who routinely threaten her for speaking out against the widespread environmental destruction facing the forest and Mekong River in Kratie.

Phorn Sopheak has gradually recovered her wounded leg after she was attacked when she took part in the patrolling to protect the forest of the Mekong. Photo: Savann Oeurm / Oxfam America

After the attack, Sopheak’s parents asked her to stop her work to defend the environment, but understand why she continues. “I don’t want to discourage other environmental activists,” Sopheak says, five months after the attack. “The blood that came out of my injury will make me braver and stronger,” she says. 

Changes bring pressure on environment

Sopheak is the eldest of seven siblings in her family. Ten years ago, she quit school to help her parents in the rice paddies. During these years, she has become an astute observer of changes in her community, particularly illegal logging and deforestation, as well as the ways companies are snapping up large areas of land. She says they spray chemicals on eucalyptus trees and crops near the Mekong River. When it rains, the chemicals flow into the river. “One of the main concerns is losing tons of fish in the river,” said Sopheak who emphasized that in the past she had enough fish to eat and the price of fish was very affordable compared to now.

All these pressures on the environment, the illegal land grabs and unsustainable fishing practices, and pollution are spreading conflict among and between community members, local officials, and company workers in Kratie.

Life as an environmental activist

Sopheak acted on her interest in protecting the river and forest by becoming a member of the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN), a grassroots movement committed to protecting the Prey Lang Forest, one of the biggest (more than 1.4 million acres) remaining forests in Asia. She is also an active member of a community fishery that was formed by Oxfam’s partner, the Northern Rural Development Organization (NRD) in her village, Kampong Cham. “I learned a lot from NRD,” said Sopheak. She and others in her town learned about fishery laws and the benefits of forming a community fishery, which helps them control and protect a specific area of the river.

One important piece of training for local people in Kratie is learning about their right to be consulted about development projects that will affect them, such as hydropower dams that could disrupt the flow of the Mekong and severely affect fish populations. This right, known as the principle of Free Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC), is an important part of the NRD’s training.

“NRD empowered me and others to be leaders,” Sopheak says, adding that understanding her right to be consulted is powerful. “The FPIC principle helps me speak more confidently, and raise questions when talking with local authorities.”

Her concerns about hydropower dams on the Mekong are a frequent topic in discussions with officials. “If the dam is built in the river, it will affect not only the people living along the river but the fish, dolphins, and other species living in the river,” she says.

Last year, representatives of the Prey Lang communities in four provinces elected Sopheak to be their representative to receive the UN Equator Prize at the 2015 Paris climate summit.   

Speaking on air

Phorn Sopheak scrolled the timeline of her friend’s Facebook that posted her photos during a five-day patrol combating illegal logging in a section of forest in Kratie province, Cambodia. Photo: Savann Oeurm / Oxfam America

Sopheak and about 50 other women in her commune were trained by NRD to speak on a radio program it produces called Women On Air. Women On Air is broadcast nationally, and helps women establish themselves as leaders in Cambodia society. “In the past, I used to think that only well-educated people can talk on the radio,” Sopheak says. “When I was invited to speak on the radio, it gave me the chance to express my concerns about the destruction of the Mekong River and the forest.”

In addition to the Women On Air radio program, Sopheak is an active Facebook user. She posts photos and videos, sharing them with her friends and fellow environmentalists. “Facebook is a good medium, I receive a lot of news about social issues and developments on Facebook. I can get updates on any events happening in my nation,” she says while looking at her friend’s Facebook page that has photos of a five-day forest patrol looking for illegal logging in a section of Prey Lang forest.

“I always share stories from my community fishery and community forest to other people and networks that protect the river and forest.”

Increasing knowledge on natural resource for women

Sopheak shares what she’s learned from NRD’s program with other women and youth in her community. She tells women they are not only mothers working at home, but that they are also responsible for protecting their natural resources and the Mekong.

“I will try my best to help women to become strong environmental activists,” Sopheak says. “I will keep informing them about fishery issues and how to conserve the fish for the next generation. I will work hard to inform and persuade them to love the river and protect our resources,” she says.

Defenders of the land and environment in Cambodia are routinely threatened, as are others in many countries. One international NGO documented more than 1,000 deaths of land rights activists and environmentalists globally since 2002.

The attack on Sopheap was a sober warning to her, but she intends to continue her work. “No matter what happens to me, if I am still alive I will devote my life to protect the Mekong River and forests,” she says.

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