Source: Khmer Times / Monday, 18 April 2016 by May Titthara
The president of the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force received the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize on Monday night in San Francisco for his work in speaking out against widespread deforestation crimes committed by tycoons, powerful government officials and the country’s armed forces.
Ouch Leng, 42, who was born into a poor family in Takeo province, was selected among a strong field of five other environmentalists representing the United States, Tanzania, Slovakia, Peru and Puerto Rico.
Mr. Leng said the chance to speak in front of an international audience of such scale, which comes with winning the Goldman Prize, is an unprecedented one for Cambodia, and he intended to use his speech to draw attention to the importance of forestry protection as the Kingdom’s supply of natural resources wanes.
Mr. Leng and the other recipients will spend the 10 days following the award ceremony on a speaking tour across the US.
The prize, established in 1989 by community leader and humanist Richard N. Goldman and his wife Rhoda H. Goldman, is meant to honor and acknowledge individuals who successfully protect the environment by encouraging local residents to contribute to its defense.
Its winner is chosen by international judges, while the candidates are chosen by a network of international NGOs and environmentalists.
Mr. Leng, with his dark skin, curly hair and wiry frame, said the forest is a natural resource, a heritage from our ancestors and does not belong to him alone but to people around the world.
He spoke of witnessing relentless deforestation with his own eyes – trees were cut down or uprooted by powerful groups, tycoons and high ranking government officials. The transportation of illegally-felled wood happened every day in plain sight, yet no one could stop it.
He added that the government participated in these crimes by doing business with corrupt businessmen in the timber industry and by openly and officially receiving money from the exploitation of the Kingdom’s depleting timber stock.
“It was the teardrops of community victims who have been crying out loud for help, for the loss of land, the loss of forest and other natural resources and the loss of jobs due to corrupt practices committed by the government that failed or did not take any measure to stop deforestation crime, that pushed me to be a volunteer in protecting the forest,” he said.
“I sacrificed my physical strength, my mental strength, my money and my life to be a secret agent to gather evidence about the deforestation and the exploitation of the forest,” Mr. Leng told Khmer Times.
Mr. Leng acknowledged that his life may be shortened because of his choice to defend the Kingdom’s forests. Forestry and environmental defenders in Cambodia are routinely shot, arrested and threatened, he said, adding that businesses are defended by thousands of government officials, tycoons, wood businessmen from powerful countries and the army.
“Even though I know that it’s very dangerous, I still want to struggle in studying, researching, investigating and gathering evidence about deforestation crime and forestry exploitation in order to show reports about corruption and forestry exploitation in Cambodia in an attempt to urge the world and my compatriots in the country and abroad to intervene in protecting our last forests that are a world heritage for the next generation,” Mr. Leng said.
He has called on all Cambodians and international communities to stop buying furniture from Vietnam and China as they import natural resources from Cambodia.
The European community especially must stop importing furniture from Vietnam, where all wood used in furniture production is cut and gathered in Cambodia, Laos and African countries, Mr. Leng said.
“If there is no buyer, there won’t be a seller or a cutter. May all of us participate in the protection of the forest,” he added.
Born to a family of farmers in 1980, Mr. Leng and his family moved to Phnom Penh where his father drove a cyclo-taxi to earn a living. Mr. Leng worked for his teachers in school to pay his educational fees.
“I suffered a lot when I saw the government not only could not stop the deforestation crime, but also was officially defending the interests of companies in the wood business,” Mr. Leng said.
Mr. Leng is known for publishing a report showing that timber tycoon Try Pheap’s company had a close relationship with Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Mr. Pheap received about 70,000 hectares of Economic Land Concessions (ELC) from the government by splitting his company into 15 smaller companies, which were involved in illegal timber activities that exported wood to Vietnam and China.
The report said that Try Pheap’s companies had been cutting and transporting high-priced wood all over the country thanks to its close relationship with government officials, the armed forces and environmental ministry officials. An official agreement of cooperation between the company, government officials and the armed forces was signed on February 22, 2010.
Chim Sun, Mr. Leng’s 81-year-old father, said he was very proud to hear that his son was the winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize.
“It is a great pride for our entire life. We never dared to think about it, and it is unbelievable for all Cambodians around the world,” Mr. Leng’s father said with tears in his eyes.