Can ‘liking’ a forest save it?

Armed with smartphones and media training, a new generation of activists in Cambodia is harnessing the tools of the internet to protect the communal land and water that feed their families—and their souls.

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Phorn Sopheak is wearing what look like pajamas. It’s a standard sort of outfit for many women in rural Cambodia. Sopheak’s are pink and have little bears and puppies on them. The bears are saying, “Honey, honey,” “Relax,” and “I want to be happy…”

Her outfit has seen heavy duty in the rice fields, and has been restitched with black thread along the shoulder seams. Sopheak’s left foot has had a few stitches as well—a gruesome scar runs laterally from the middle of the top down to her instep, the result of an attack on her while she was sleeping in a hammock in the middle of the Prey Lang forest.

At 1.2 million acres, Prey Lang is one of Asia’s largest protected forests, and it’s being relentlessly and illegally logged. Last March Sopheak was in one of the more remote areas of Prey Lang with a group of activists trying to identify illegal loggers when she was attacked. Her assailant escaped. “I don’t know who did this to me,” she says. But she has her assumptions about why.

Protected areas like Prey Lang and communal lands set aside for indigenous people, where they worship their ancestors and forage for food, are not safe from resource robbery. Now, armed with knowledge of their rights under Cambodia’s land and forestry laws, young people like Sopheak are standing up to the illegal loggers intent on exporting valuable rosewood lumber, or stealing communal lands. The weapon of choice for these digitally savvy activists? Their smartphones.

Cambodia has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, according to research by ADHOC, which says forest cover went from 72 percent of the country in 1973 to less than 48 percent in 2014.

Sharing the forest’s fate on Facebook

Several hours north and east of Sopheak’s home in Kratie, a young man named Romam Nuth stops his motorbike on a brown muddy road, and walks off through a sparsely wooded area, knocking away the high green grass with his arms as he goes. He stops at the remnants of a recently felled rosewood tree. What’s left are mostly limbs and stump. The greatest parts of its trunk are gone, stolen, by he knows not who.

With Nuth is a group of about 10 people from his village, all ethnic Jarai people, one of the dozen or so ethnic groups here in Ratanakiri province. They are checking a small corner of a once-vast tropical forest in Cambodia’s northern highlands, a forest that stretched from the Vietnam border hundreds of kilometers west to the Mekong River near the Lao border. Nuth’s village, called Lum, was once surrounded by forest, until the government conceded nearly 20,000 acres to a Vietnamese rubber tree plantation. Nuth says the company arrived in 2011, and without any warning or discussion, cleared the land, a violation of the community’s right to be consulted about such projects.

Nuth says that prior to that, the village had requested a communal land title—a legal means, granted to indigenous communities under the 2001 Land Law, of protecting their acreage. But villagers are still waiting for the paperwork to come through. In the meantime, they are closely watching what’s left of their communal land, to make sure that the rubber tree plantation does not expand farther into their forest and that no one removes more trees.

“I grew up in the beauty of nature,” Nuth says. He’s now 23, unmarried, and has been helping his family grow rice, cassava, and cashews since he dropped out of school at age 10. The forest, he says, “is part of my everyday life, and is a strong part of my indigenous identity.”

Indigenous people worship their ancestors in their spirit forest, a forest they set aside for this purpose. In other areas they also hunt; forage for food such as mushrooms, edible bamboo plants, fruit, and nuts; tap resin they can sell for making lacquer; and gather building materials like bamboo and rattan. Indigenous farmers rotate their rice and vegetable fields around the forest, and need enough communal land to make this system of agriculture work. It’s all part of the indigenous culture and economy.

“We can’t live like others in Cambodia, with just a plot of land,” Nuth explains. “We depend on the resources in the forest to support our livelihood.”

Trained by Oxfam partner Media One, Nuth set up a community forestry patrol to protect the shrinking resource. With his Media One reporting skills Nuth now shares information on Facebook about Lum’s forestry conservation efforts, and creates programs for a small community radio station. His mission? To get other young people as concerned about the environment as he is.

“If young people don’t protect the forest and keep our culture linked to the forest, soon both will be gone,” Nuth says.

He says the community is now more aware of the illegal logging issues here, but a small portion of people still do not understand. “I’m trying to step up efforts to engage them,” Nuth says. “But for now there is still some illegal logging.”

Pressure on land and forest resources

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Future leaders with digital skills

Ping Chamroeun is in a long, narrow wooden boat ripping across the waters of the Sesan River. The boat stops at a steep bank, and she leads a small group of people up through the heavy undergrowth with a determined look on her face. Fifty feet up, she stops at a small wood-frame structure, open on one side, with metal sheet walls and an angled roof. The floor is a rough concrete slab, and on it sits a rock about the size of a large suitcase surrounded by offerings: bottles of water and little packages of snacks, burnt sticks of incense, and candles. Chamroeun, her elderly neighbor, Houn Kaleb, and a few other mostly younger people gather around the shrine, light incense sticks, and pray.

It may not look like a holy site to an outsider, but this spot is called “God’s Mountain,” the most sacred of places in the ethnic Proav religion. Chamroeun and Kaleb are asking the spirits for help: they want to protect the forest, the river, and their homes.

It is spectacularly beautiful here: the forest is dense, the wind stirs the tree branches, and the tallest bamboo plants creak as they move, punctuating the prayers. The waters of the Sesan swirl by, high, brown, and turbulent in the rainy season. Chamroeun and Kaleb leave offerings at the shrine and look out on the river.

Chamroeun says she became concerned about the environment in 2013. Her home was flooded by the Sesan River when the Yali dam upstream in Vietnam released a great volume of water during a period of heavy rain. She and her husband evacuated their home, bringing their animals and anything they could move. They returned too soon, and they had to flee again. The stress caused Chamroeun, pregnant with her first baby, to miscarry. Tears fill her eyes as she recounts the tragedy. The two other young women with her look at the ground, and then back up at Chamroeun.

Soon after her loss, a group of young people invited her to join a radio listening club organized by Media One. Most of the programs they heard were about indigenous land rights and the importance of protecting the environment as a means to preserving their culture. Already concerned about the river and her home, Chamroeun decided to get involved.

She volunteered for training as a reporter, and she began contributing material to the broadcasts herself. She later joined a committee to manage a community fishery in Seang Say, the village where she lives. She participates in a patrol to protect Seang Say’s fishery, and she created a Facebook page to teach others about the regulations so that they can protect their fish population.

“I am confident,” Chamroeun says. “I can see changes in myself. I have capabilities in coordination and leading in the community. In the past I was too shy. When I was in a group I could not talk. But since I got the training, I know more and can express my opinion, and speak in public.”

Chamroeun is 26, and now has a son nearly one year old. She encourages other young people to help her in the fishery patrols and other activities to protect their natural resources. “Youth have skills in social media and digital photography, and [in] sharing photographs on the internet,” she says. “They are the ones who will replace the older generation. They are the future leaders.”

2.5 billion people depend on land and natural resources that are held, used, or managed collectively. You can help them defend their rights to these lands by joining the Land Rights Now campaign.

2.5 billion people depend on land and natural resources that are held, used, or managed collectively. You can help them defend their rights to these lands by joining the Land Rights Now campaign.

Media One helps get the word out

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Commitment to the forest

The video below, on Phorn Sopheak’s Facebook page was shot by someone running through Prey Lang forest behind a camouflage-clad soldier carrying a rifle. Trees, branches, and underbrush whip by the camera, and the video is shaky and blurry.

“They’re over there!” one of the soldiers yells in Khmer, “Quickly!”

A chainsaw blares in the distance and becomes more distinct as the soldier and forest patrol members come upon two men, one cutting a massive log, the other standing on it. The one holding the chainsaw slowly turns around, a cigarette drooping out of his mouth. He stops cutting, but he does not look surprised or particularly worried that he’s been caught sawing up a valuable tree.

He probably has no cause to be. Despite a moratorium on logging concessions and strict rules about taking trees from protected forest like Prey Lang, there’s little enforcement.

“The government has laws to protect the forest, and … has said that Prey Lang will be a protected forest,” Sopheak explains. “But local officials don’t take serious action to protect the environment.”


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This is why Sopheak and her colleagues in the Prey Lang Community Network formed forestry patrols: to go out into Prey Lang for four or five days at a time, hiking around listening for chainsaws and looking for evidence of logging. She says if they can find loggers themselves, they try to convince them to stop their activities. They report logging activity to the local officials, which can result in some collaboration as seen in the video on her Facebook page. But these same officials are sometimes involved in the illegal activities themselves. “I don’t see a lot of enforcement of the laws,” Sopheak says.

Sopheak is still recovering from the injury to her foot last March. Despite being ill with a fever and sore throat, she had agreed to go out on a forestry patrol and was sleeping in her hammock near her fellow patrollers when the attack happened. She says her colleagues told her they saw someone with a flashlight near where she was sleeping in the early hours of the morning—they assumed it was her. But they were wrong: whoever it was crept up on her in the darkness, amid the sound of the whirring insects and trees stirring softly in the wind, and landed a nasty blow on her foot. If her assailant had picked the other end of her hammock, where her head was resting, she might have died.

Her throat was so sore she could hardly cry out, but she found her voice. Her friends helped her back to Kratie city for medical treatment.

By October Sopheak was walking without crutches. But soon she’ll need them again—once she has the next operation to continue repairing her injured foot.

Still, Sopheak does not seem to dwell much on the price she is paying for her work. She says she became a much more outspoken person following leadership and public-speaking training with Oxfam’s partner Northern Rural Development, or NRD. The organization teaches people how to protect their natural resources, including forests and communal fishing areas designated by the government.

And so eloquent has she become that her colleagues in the Prey Lang Community Network elected her to represent the organization in Paris when it received the Equator Prize from the UN Development Programme. The UN specifically cited her group’s use of “forest patrols and smartphone technology to geo-reference, document and upload information about forest health, illegal logging and wildlife poaching.”

“The forest means a lot to me,” Sopheak says. Not only is it a source of food and income, but it nurtures her in deeper ways, too. “I walk into the forest and listen to the birds, and the forest sounds, and it’s like a lullaby for me. It releases me from all my sadness.”

Sopheak sees young people playing an important role in protecting Prey Lang and all the other forests and rivers of Cambodia. “It’s important for one generation to learn from the other, and to protect the environment,” she says. Despite all she has suffered from her injuries, she says she wants others to see her commitment and follow her example. “I want others to learn from me,” Sopheak says, “and do even more than I have.”

Additional credits: The opening photo, shot by Oxfam’s Savann Oeurm, shows Romam Nuth, 23, a community journalist trained by Oxfam’s partner Media One. He has become a leader of efforts to protect the forest in his village in northeastern Cambodia, and uses social media channels like Facebook to share information about his ethnic Jarai community and the community’s struggle to protect its land and forest. “Facebook is a useful thing,” he says. “Without it, I could not share these issues with outsiders.” The video clip of the young woman in the boat was also shot by Oeurm. The clip of the loggers was shot by EK Sovathnna of the Prey Lang Community Network.

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