Meet a Man Who Went Undercover to Save Cambodia’s Forests

It’s well known that honoring the rights of indigenous people is vital to the preservation of forests worldwide.

Leng Ouch, an environmental activist, human rights lawyer, and Goldman Environmental Prize winner has taken this role to an extreme.

Leng has spent the past 20 years exposing corruption and greed at the heart of the Cambodian forest industry, going undercover to gather evidence of illegal logging activities by posing as a laborer, timber dealer, driver, tourist and a cook. He bravely documented the illegal operations of Cambodia’s biggest timber magnate, and publicly released the photos and video footage he gathered, revealing how Economic Land Concessions were used as a cover for illegal logging and exposing criminal collusion between timber companies and government officials at all levels of power.

In Cambodia, not only do indigenous groups play an important role in protecting forests and preventing global warming, but the forests themselves are an indispensable resource for the vast majority of the country’s population.

Unfortunately, Cambodia has the fifth-fastest rate of deforestation in the world, impacting both people and planet.

But why is the country losing so many trees?

Rosewood, and other special tree species are in high demand due to a growing middle class in China and an increase in the desire for luxury furniture. Over a decade ago, the Cambodian government began issuing what’s called Economic Land Concessions, a long-term leasing system designed to promote large-scale agricultural development, such as sugar and rubber plantations. The Economic Land Concessions became a way to cover up illegal logging operations, much of which is smuggled into China and other countries. Economic Land Concessions became a new form of oppression, displacing poor farmers from their only source of livelihood – their land.

In 1998, Leng formed the Cambodia Human Rights Task Forces to protect Cambodia’s remaining forest and advocate for the rights of poor and indigenous peoples to access the forests.

The organization’s efforts were rewarded in 2014 when the government canceled 23 land concessions covering 220,000 acres of forest. This included two Economic Land Concessions that had been granted inside Virachey National Park, an area of rich biodiversity with federally protected status.

But the struggle continues.

Using $5,000 from Global Greengrants Fund, Leng and the Cambodia Human Rights Task Forces will support a forest patrol team of 10 people that will investigate and document ongoing illegal logging cases, map impacted forest areas, and hang banners and signs identifying that the areas are being monitored for illegal activities. They will investigate five major cases of forest crimes, conduct forest mapping, and organize a team of several hundred youth to protect the forest. The organization will also campaign for the government to stop the export of timber to Vietnam, China and other countries, and encourage the international community to stop purchasing wood products from those countries. This is an indigenous led project that will benefit more than 400,000 families from 8 provinces.

Like so many of the activists we support, Leng is willing to put his safety and wellbeing on the line for the cause.

Says Leng:

“The battle for the environment is everywhere becoming increasingly fierce. I feel in great danger but I am not scared. They know my name, but mostly they do not recognize me. Often I go in disguise. Sometimes I have long hair, sometimes short, sometimes I wear dirty clothes. They have threatened me many times, but now they have been to my house. So now I must relocate my family.”

Since winning the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2016, Leng and his organization have continued monitoring forests and exposing illegal logging with a more public approach, including working with and organizing among local communities impacted by Economic Land Concessions. Global Greengrants Fund continues to support their efforts.

Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize

Alex Grossman

Alex Grossman

Alex comes to Global Greengrants with a background in indigenous rights, women’s rights, and environmental policy. She previously developed communications content and strategy for The Center of Effective Global Action at U.C. Berkeley and The Climate Reality Project. Alex has a M.A. in Latin American Studies from Boston University and a B.A. in International Relations and Anthropology from the University of Colorado at Boulder.