In the dark of night, the glow of a fire leaves a faint light on faces weary from days of walking in the jungle. Ten people lie awake in a makeshift camp, hoping for a strong breeze to fan the dying fire.
Voices carry from the distance, broken occasionally by the persistent sound of chainsaws: loggers working under the cover of darkness. Tonight, they will cut down trees until their truck is full or they get tired and stop to catch a few hours of sleep.
Cambodia’s northern Prey Lang forest is one of the last evergreen forests in Southeast Asia. Spanning four provinces and covering 3,600 kilometers squared (1,400 miles squared), Prey Lang is also considered the largest evergreen forest in the country and likely the most expansive in the region.
In the dialect of the Kuy minority, Prey Lang means ‘our forest.’ At the edge of the forest, the village of Phneak Rolerk – a relocation site for the Kuy minority during the Khmer Rouge period – is now home to over 100 families.
The community has been living here for at least two generations. They make their living in the forest, which provides farmland, food, medicine, rattan, vines and other natural products. It was sustainable. Until the loggers arrived.
“Prey Lang was full of precious wood. This led companies to come here and cut the precious trees,” says Phouk Hong, a local activist and mother of five. “You start to realize what is going on when your livelihood is threatened. My family and I lived off the resin trees; now that they are less, we need to organize ourselves to protect them.”
Phouk Hong, member of the Prey Lang Community Network patrollers. Photo: Antoine Raab / Ruom
In recent years, the Cambodian government has granted at least 12 Economic Land Concessions in Prey Lang, allowing logging companies to work in the forest. A report from the organization Global Witness found that China’s demand for luxury rosewood has given rise to a multi-million dollar timber smuggling operation in Cambodia. Experts say that these companies often start logging outside the boundaries of their concessions.
There’s a lot at stake. The forest plays a critical role in the Mekong and Tonle Sap Basins according to the United Nations Development Programme. Tonle Sap is one of the world’s most productive freshwater ecosystems, so much so that the lake is known as Cambodia’s beating heart. The loss of Prey Lang would affect at least 1.5 million people in the area. In response, the communities who call the forest home are fighting to protect it, taking loggers on one camp at a time.
The Prey Lang Community Network includes 339 communities over four provinces. Funded by foreign organizations and governments, the network tries to get public attention with protests and petitions, maps endangered areas, and conducts biodiversity surveys to document disappearing species. Every other week, they go after small groups of loggers.