‘If I lose Prey Lang, I lose my life.’
March 5, 2015, 8:37 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

‘If I lose Prey Lang, I lose my life.’

 More than 40 years ago, Phok Hong was born in the middle of a huge jungle in northeastern Cambodia known in her Kuoy ethnic minority dialect as Prey Lang, or “Our Forest.” For almost half a century, she and her family have relied on it for their livelihood as did their ancestors who had lived there generations before her.

However, as Cambodia began to open up for development since the 1990s, large parts of Prey Lang have been razed and cut into pieces for Economic Land Concessions granted by the government to private companies.

“If I lose Prey Lang, I lose my life,” she warns. “Everyday I worry about losing Prey Lang.  I worry that the land broker and the company will destroy it and I will lose my way of life.”

Prey Lang forest is the last large primary forest on the Indochinese peninsula and the source of livelihood for around 200,000 people, including a large portion of the country’s indigenous population.

The forest is richly bio-diverse, home to 40 endangered plant and animal species and a primary watershed regulating water and sediment flow to the Tonle Sap Basin. The forest is not only essential for the Kingdom’s food and water security but, with among the highest carbon sequestration values in the region, is a powerhouse for fighting global warming.

“If we lose Prey Lang we lose the forest, the herbal remedies, the wild life and most importantly the indigenous traditions that have been passed down through many generations of our ancestors,” Phok Hong says. “Today I will pray for the world to appreciate the importance of Prey Lang and help us put and end to this conflict.”

Svay Phoeun, a Preay Lang activist from Preah Vihear province, says both the Economic Land Concession companies and people from other parts of Cambodia are expanding their ELC land and reclaiming more land by logging and clearing the forest in and around Prey Lang.

“We are not happy with the deforestation,” says Svay Phoeun. “We have little hope that the government will take effective measures to crackdown on illegal logging activities.”

The activist says the policy of the government has no power to stop deforestation by the companies and individuals who are cutting down the forests on the daily basis.

“The [development] policy exists only on paper,” he says. “While the top government officials are drafting the policy, the lower authorities are not working to stop the deforestation.”

“The cutting of the forests has not slowed down, but it is even increasing,” adds Hoeun Sopheap, Prey Lang activist from Kompong Thom.

Soheap says people from different parts of Cambodia are cutting down the forest in Prey Lang, while local authorities have turned their blind eye to this problem.

“Some powerful and rich people have hired local villagers to cut down the forests,” he says. “I am not telling lies like magicians.”

Sopheap says local villagers are paid 700,000 riel, or $75, to cut and clear one hectare of forest land in Prey Lang.

“I don’t know what to do,” he says. “We just continue patrolling the forest.”

Despite the lack of will and action on the part of the government, Svay Phoeun says the Prey Lang communities depend on their solidarity in taking action to protect the remaining forests in Prey Lang.

“We want people at different communities to be united and not to be afraid,” he says. “People keep on patrolling the forests.”

“Without any effective measures to crackdown on the deforestation, Prey Lang will disappear in the future,” Sopheap warns.

“If Prey Lang is gone, the living conditions of the villagers will get worse,” he continues. “If they lose Prey Lang, it’s like losing their cooking pots.”

Sopheap says other people in Cambodia and the rest of the world will be affected indirectly in terms of the impact on agriculture, economy and environment.

The Cambodian government drafted a sub-decree in 2011 which would establish the Prey Lang Forest Protected and Biodiversity Conservation Area.

Following the draft sub-decree, the Prey Lang Community Network organized a series of consultations and meetings at the local, regional and national levels with more than 1,200 participants, including people from PLCN, farmers, fishers, university students, indigenous community members, union members, hydropower activists, sugar network members, the Aural network, regional forest protection networks and others.

During the consultations, the participants said Prey Lang played a vital role in the local economy, agriculture, fishing, and the environment. In addition, Prey Lang is essential to the customs and traditions of the indigenous people who live in or near the forest.

In addition, Prime Minister Hun Sen stated publicly in February 2011 that Cambodia’s forests must be protected in order to reduce global warming while Cambodia’s Forest Administration identified Prey Lang as an important area for conservation.   This notwithstanding, developments around the forest have accelerated markedly recently with concessionaires clearing forest areas in order to create rubber plantations.

“The rubber plantations give only profits to wealthy individuals but if we protect Prey Lang forest it will give profits, not only to the ethnic Kuoy people but also to everyone,” Vong Phan, an indigenous Kuoy from Prey Lang says. 

Seng Sokheng, a representative of the Community Peace-building Network, says he is pleased to see the solidarity among the people from different communities in Cambodia in their efforts to protect Prey Lang, particularly their participation in the consultation meetings.

“The scale of this event is unprecedented and yet it does not fully reflect the gravity of the threat against Prey Lang,” he says proudly. “It is great to see communities uniting together against injustices relating to land and, particularly, to the management of our natural resources.”

Until very recently, Prey Lang and its border areas supported roughly 3,600 square kilometers of forests, including a nearly pristine core area of 80,000-100,000 hectares. Now even primary forest is being cleared to make way for plantations and mines.

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