I am Chut Wutty
Chut Wutty sat in the Cambodian morning sun, preparing for a 500-person strong occupation to investigate deforestation in Prey Lang forest. He jumped up when I spoke to him – I was part of a foreign film team with a battered, borrowed motorbike and nowhere to put the gallons of water we needed to join the protest. Wutty organised us with alacrity. He stowed our water in the back of his burgundy Land Rover and immediately started asking questions. His energy was infectious.
Wutty was a prominent activist and director of the Natural Resources Protection Group. He had been working to stop illegal deforestation in Cambodia since the 1990s, and was particularly active in the Cardamom Mountains and in Prey Lang forest. Wutty played a major role in supporting the Prey Lang Network, a grassroots community movement that spans four provinces and was recently awarded the UN Equator Prize. That day in November 2011, Wutty and the network were preparing for one of their most ambitious campaigns — it would later turn out to be one of the most brutally suppressed.
Deforestation is a systematic violence against people who live by the forest. Land and livelihoods are taken; people migrate or become labourers. In Cambodia, villages are flanked by a patchwork of greens: rice paddy, fields of cassava, cashew nut trees and sugar palms give way to the rich, darker green of the forest. The landscape is vividly alive, from the noisy hum of cicadas and hooting of gibbons, to the ribbons of white road flashing as motorbikes pass. People’s livelihoods depend on resins, vines and rattans collected deep in the forest. Resin trees are passed from one generation to the next, and are protected under Cambodian law. Those same tree species are targeted by loggers.
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When the timber industry moves in, it hides behind ‘development.’ Rubber companies cut bare, industrial-sized stamps in the forest. Silence and heat fall heavily on the clearing. As the vivid green saplings grow, the plantations march, dark and regimented over the dark, red earth. The rubber plantations are a cover. Chut Wutty explained that, after the logging licenses were suspended in 2002, “the companies tried to get forest land through the land concessions. At that time, degraded forest was provided for planting rubber, but in reality it was not degraded forest, it was dense, evergreen forest with good quality timber.”
In Cambodia, exploitation of land, or land-grabbing, and exploitation of forests are two sides of one process. It is the local people that suffer as concession companies cut down their resin trees, take their farmland and consecrate the spirit forests.
Local authorities and officials offer no support. Wutty told me during the campaign in Prey Lang that November:
“They simply put the blame on the forest protectors, the local community, and try their best to conceal illegal actions by businessmen, turning a blind eye and deaf ear to them,” he said. “According to the law, those living surrounding the forest have the right to access non-timber forest products. In contrast, this access is denied.”
Opposing powerful interests and speaking out against corrupt officials is a dangerous job. While Wutty was acutely aware of the risks he was taking, he refused to be silenced. Sitting next to him as the military approached at the Prey Lang protest, Wutty was composed. “They are coming to catch me,” he said. “Should I run away? But where to go?” He looked around for a second, then said: “I’d like to see what they do.”
A few minutes later, a military police officer came up behind him, grabbed him in a stranglehold and wrestled him to the ground. For about a minute he struggled, amid a circle of military and police pointing AK-47s. Within seconds, network members rushed to his aid, armed only with sticks, freeing him.
Afterward, Wutty told me he was proud and grateful for his supporters, and also touched at the spirit of the questions protestors shouted at police: “Who pays your salary?” “Why do you bring guns here when we have none?” “We’re all Cambodians aren’t we?”
Later, tired and rattled in a nearby guesthouse, Wutty told me:
“I understand that if I don’t help them, no one would. Many others in the country only want to be in a senior position and to get rewards – to make more and more money no matter if it is at the expense of others.”
On April 26, 2012, Wutty was guiding two journalists through the Cardamom Mountains on the last day of a three-day fact finding mission. After the three stopped at an illegal yellow vine site in Koh Kong province and began taking photos, two men prohibited Wutty’s group from leaving. Minutes later, three police officers arrived with AK-47s. After forcibly confiscating the group’s cameras, a verbal scuffle ensued between the officers and Wutty. Shots rang out and Wutty was shot dead through the door of his car. First he sat there, behind the wheel in the position he was killed, and then, after his body was moved, he laid on a tarp, for hours until day turned to dusk and authorities transported his body to the nearest hospital.
Wutty died that day, but he inspired hundreds to carry on his work. Two weeks after he was killed, hundreds of villagers and activists travelled hours to the site where Wutty was killed. They carried a 10-foot effigy of him made of tree branches, and signs that read, “I am Chut Wutty.” They continue to fight for their forests.
Watch the film I am Chut Wutty
For the Forest
In 2014 a new threat emerged—an enormous saw mill at the site of a new access route to drain timber from the forest: a so-called ‘social land concession’ in the hands of ruling family member. Investigations showed that hundreds of resin trees every hour are fed into the saw mill. Brokers are buying resin trees from villagers for $2.50 per tree—trees that have supplied generations with predictable income. If the owner refuses, the tree will be cut down anyway.
Without political back-up, the communities are left in a vulnerable position. To do nothing means losing vital income as the trees disappear, but to take action risks even greater loss. And without Chut Wutty, there was no one to go first.
Impetuous, righteous and astoundingly brave, Ouch Leng started to speak out. Leng worked with the Prey Lang Network as an NGO employee after Wutty’s death, in 2014 he went solo, daring to support direct action in the network, and to denounce the illegal activities of Cambodia’s political elite.
Prey Lang is under siege, facing an onslaught of logging as demand from Vietnam and China drives loggers deep into the forest. Controlling the supply through a cartel of Economic Land Concessions (ELCs), timber transporters, local loggers and export businesses, powerful tycoon, Try Pheap is the major beneficiary as the forest is flattened. Try Pheap is a senator and Okhnya—a title awarded to those who make a substantial financial contribution to Cambodia’s development, or to the ruling party.
When the saw mills moved north, Leng gave chase, determined to document and challenge the deforestation. Now in the forest he found enormous machines, which grab, strip and cut 50 foot trees in two minutes. “The forest is decreasing day by day. Because of the government—they did not reform forest policies. The forest will not even survive with community forest protection, because elements within the government and high-ranking officers are destroying it completely.”
To do this work, Leng risks his life: “The government will do something to me—like Chut Wutty. And the private companies [I expose] try to find me. We also don’t have enough budget for our activities and I sometimes don’t have enough to support my family. Also we lose hope… because the government and private companies don’t care about anything—about the law, about the forest, about climate change.”
But despite the dangers, Leng is determined to challenge the timber trade. Although fear is catching, courage is just as infectious, and among the younger generation there is growing resolution to fight for the forests, lands and waterways that sustain us.
Free Mother Nature
“I am a mother”, Somnang’s voice breaks, she controls herself and continues. “I am a mother. I feel so angry that my son is in jail… he has done nothing wrong, he sacrificed himself to protect the environment. This is unjust and cruel.”
Somnang’s son Try Sovikea, has been in jail for months, sharing a cramped cell with fourteen others. Each person has less than half a square metre of space, where they are confined 20 hours a day. At night Vikea and his cell mates sleep squashed together in a foetal position, unable to move. His crime? Taking part in a peaceful protest in defence of the mangrove forests that fringe Cambodia’s south west shores, forests that are crumbling as sand-dredgers suck the land out from under the wide, green estuaries.
The mangrove forests are full of life. The leaves shimmer above the water, reflections dance over darting fish. Bright orange crabs make a clicking noise among the netted black roots. People are sustained from this world, the crabs, the fish and the sea. At night, when there is low tide, the fishing boats spread, like glowing turquoise beads rolling among the islands, hunting for crabs in the sand-bars’ shallow water.
Then the sand-dredgers come. Huge rusting boats arrive, pushing their bulky prows into the soft sand of the narrow waterways. They suck out the substrate, under the delicately pointing mangrove roots, piling the sand on deck, ready to ship to Singapore, to become cement, car-parks, the crafted white beach of a resort.
In April 2015, Vikea and his fellow activists working with Mother Nature Cambodia, went to meet the communities, to learn about what was happening. They were immediately asked to stay and fight to save the islanders way of life.
Pheap lives on the island Koh Sra Lao, her family is suffering because the crabs are disappearing. “The activists came here to help us, even in the burning heat, or in the rain. They worked hard, they explained our rights under the law.”
In the deep carved out waters where the sand-dredgers have been, the crabs cannot survive, mangroves collapse in salty waves. The communities on the islands suffer, parents travel further from home to get a catch, staying away for days or weeks at a time. Young people are restless, conflicts spring up among families strained with economic hardship.
In the summer of 2015, Vikea and his two fellow activists, Somnang and Mala boarded a sand-dredger, with dozens of community members. They wanted to peacefully occupy the ship, urging the company to halt the sand-dredging and calling attention to the harm it was doing to the communities.
They received a summons from the local authorities, then on 17th August, police came to arrest them. They had no arrest warrant and within a day, Vikea, Somnang and Mala were in jail.
Mala, Vikea and Somnang were jailed for over ten months. In early July 2016, they were released, but with a suspended sentence hanging over their heads. Despite the fact that no witnesses testified to support the charges, these three activists have been convicted and each ordered to pay a fine of $500 dollars, and $25,000 compensation to the very company that is destroying Cambodia’s coastline. Whilst nature’s defenders are convicted – guilty of trying to protect the mangroves and fishing grounds that so many families depend on – the companies that profit from the devastation are to be rewarded.
On Koh Sralau, the struggle continues. Pheap and her community have faced more than a 50% drop in catch over the last ten years. Their interests come second to the profitable extraction of sand, yet their way of life has protected and sustained this ecosystem for centuries, just as the ecosystem has sustained their needs. The extractive industries that are imposing themselves on the estuaries know nothing of this mutualism: how life flourishes.