Death toll of forest activists grows in Cambodia


Ratanakiri province, located in the northeast corner of Cambodia where the borders of that country, Laos and Vietnam converge, is a luscious wilderness of gem-studded mountains, red earth and hardwood trees. It was in this tropical rainforest that the body of Hang Serei Oudom, a reporter with the Vorakchun Khmer Daily newspaper, was found stuffed in the boot of his car, his head mutilated by the blows of an axe. 

Hang Serei Oudom was investigating illegal logging, a lucrative and dangerous game that has stripped nearly one-third of Cambodia’s once-plentiful forest cover in the last two decades. In the last story the 44-year-old journalist wrote before he left his home Sunday night and never returned, he accused the son of a powerful military official of illegally smuggling logs in cars with military plates. A military policeman has been arrested in connection with his death. 

The journalist is the latest casualty in a deadly land grab battle in Cambodia, as reported in chinadialogue. The environmental campaigner Chut Wutty was shot dead at the wheel of his vehicle earlier this year, also while investigating illegal logging. According to Global Witness, environmental activists have been killed at a rate of one per week over the last decade in connection with their work. 

In an excellent piece on Dot Earth, the New York Times environmental blog, Mike Shanahan, of the IIED, makes an eloquent point about the necessity of looking past these deaths as individual tragedies, and seeing them as points in a broader pattern connecting governments, militaries, markets and individual consumers in the US, China and beyond. The crimes that people like Hang Serei Oudom and Chut Wutty gave their lives to uncover have as many collaborators as they do victims.

"What’s needed now is for journalists across the world to join the dots. Because blood spilt in – for instance — a tropical forest can often be connected now with notes deposited in a Western bank or luxury hardwoods bought in a high-street store in China or Chicago," Shanahan wrote.

"When a journalist dies to tell a story, it becomes a story that deserves an audience like no other. When that story is about the flows of money and natural resources that make tough men rich and put poor people in peril, it doesn’t take much effort to see that it is a story that can touch us all." 

Image by Ethan Crowley via flickr