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Cambodian forest campaigners fight rampant deforestation

KOH KONG--Cambodia Frustrated by government inaction, Cambodian citizen patrollers are risking their lives to take on the country's illegal loggers in a bid to save their shrinking forests.

The shooting of a prominent environmentalist by a military policeman last month after he refused to hand over logging photos rocked the kingdom and shone an unflattering light on government conservation efforts.

Forest communities who depend on the woodlands for their survival say they plan to keep Chhut Vuthy's brand of grassroots activism alive by stepping up the patrols he introduced last year to monitor forest crimes.

“We are all Chhut Vuthy,” supporters said at a recent memorial rally in the remote jungle in southwestern Koh Kong province where the 45-year-old was gunned down.

Rampant illegal logging contributed to a sharp drop in Cambodia's forest cover from 73 percent in 1990 to 57 percent in 2010, according to the United Nations.

“We must protect the forest before it's gone. The forest is our rice bowl,” 58-year-old Chan Yeng told AFP at the rally, recalling how she once helped confiscate a chainsaw while on patrol in northeastern Prey Lang forest, where the livelihoods of thousands of indigenous people are at risk.

She said the patrols work: after talking to loggers, documenting their activities or preventing them from benefiting from their illegally harvested timber, her community has seen a drop in forest crimes in recent months.

In the past, when Vuthy was still alive, the patrollers even went so far as to burn hidden caches of luxury timber worth tens of thousands of dollars.

In what will be their largest coordinated action yet, hundreds of villagers plan to patrol forests across 10 provinces in June, according to the Communities Peace Building Network, which coordinates grassroots forest activities.

Campaigners admit it could be risky but they say forest communities are willing to put themselves in harm's way because they cannot rely on the authorities to save the country's natural riches.

“Given the government's inaction or inability to stop illegal logging and to stop deforestation, I think it now falls to the Cambodian public to do something,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.

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This photo taken on May 11 shows Cambodian villagers from other provinces next to piles of timber in Koh Kong province, some 300 kilometers southwest of Phnom Penh. The fight against illegal logging has turned deadly in Cambodia, but villagers say the murder of a key activist has only hardened their resolve to take forest protection into their own hands.

(AFP)

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