Hon and his son walk through the rice fields outside their village. The Kuy are the biggest indigenous community in Cambodia. © Antoine Raab/ The Ruom Collective 

A Cambodian community protects its sacred forest

In Cambodia’s northern Prey Lang forest, one of the last remaining lowland evergreen forests in Southeast Asia, the indigenous Kuy community is organising itself to preserve its roots, traditions, and protect the land to which it belongs.

A film by Thomas Cristofoletti/ Ruom 

A spirited mandate

One of the largest ethnic groups in Cambodia, the Kuy community lives in harmony with the forest. For them, life follows the organic rhythm of nature, rooted in the essence of community life.

“We call this place our home. This is where we feel protected”, they explain. A community strongly tied to their animist beliefs, the Kuy people says that the Neaktah – or ancestral spirits – have blessed their presence in the forest. The Neaktah watch over people and places as long as they are paid respect through prayers and offerings.

Saom Than, a 48-year-old farmer explains that the Neaktah ensure safety to the people by warding off imminent threats. “They always provide for the people. We can find fruits when we are hungry, and we do not have to worry about wild animals”, he says.

In the Kuy dialect, Prey Lang means “our forest”. The community calls it home and has been living here for at least two decades. And more than a spiritual place, the forest is also “a nurturing mother”. This is how Hon, a 50-year old farmer, explains it: “We have a deep connection with the forest because we look for its natural products”. 

In fact, Prey Lang provides an abundant source of resources and blesses the Kuy community with farmland, food, medicine, rattan, vines, and other natural gifts that the villagers can use and rely on. This is how the Kuy community has been self-sufficient for the past two generations.

Also a resin tapper, Hon learnt the practice from his parents, and is now passing the trade on to his 23-year old son, Keuth, as every week, they go deeper into the forest to collect the precious extract. “Resin is the main source of income for our community”, he says. But yields have declined over the past eight years, and the community has observed a change in rainfall. “Before, there were more trees and the rain was regular. If this year stays dry, we will collect less resin”, Hon says. He believes that this is because of the illegal logging.

Phouk Hong, Loun Hon and other members of the network get ready for a patrol. © Antoine Raab/ The Ruom Collective 

A Vanishing Point

Spanning four provinces and covering 3,600 square kilometres, Prey Lang is considered the largest evergreen forest in the country, and is likely the most expansive in Indochina. But over the last ten years, Cambodia’s deforestation rate has increased more rapidly than that of any other country in the world.

A recent report published through a collaboration of NGOs – MOSAIC Project, CHRTF, N1M and Mother Nature Cambodia – states that the Cambodian government granted at least 32 economic land concessions (ELCs) in Prey Lang, “clearing spirit forests and graveyards without concern”. The report also reveals that a forest “restoration project is found to be clear-cutting dense, valuable forest and transforming it into a monocrop acacia plantation”.

The United Nations estimates that the loss of Prey Lang would not only have an impact on the climate, but would also affect at least 1.5 million people in the Mekong region. “Prey Lang has valuable ecological importance [and its] ecosystem plays a critical role in the water regulation between the Tonle Sap and Mekong basins”, a representative of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Phnom Penh explains. The Tonle Sap is one of the world’s most productive freshwater ecosystems – so productive, in fact, that it has earned the lake the nickname of “Cambodia’s beating heart”.

As Prey Lang’s trees vanish from the activities of illegal loggers, so too, the Kuy believe, do the Neaktah spirits. “If the forest dies, we die”, say many members of the community, who are fearful that the disappearing spirits will leave the Kuy people vulnerable and unprotected. “Now that the forest is gone, I do not feel like I am protected anymore”, Saom Than adds.

Heing Yeun, Loun Keuth, Loun Hon and Srey in the forest while collecting resin. © Antoine Raab/ The Ruom Collective

Defending their roots

Facing the dire need for action to stop the destruction of the forest, the Kuy people rallied together to patrol their neighbouring forest and monitor any illegal deforestation. The result of this effort is the Prey Lang Network (PLN) was created in 2007. Comprising 339 communities spanning over the four provinces, the Network is reliant on funding from foreign countries and organisations to be able to coordinate patrols to catch illegal loggers.

Every other month, about 20 members of the Network embark on a journey through the forest to catch illegal loggers, using acid to destroy the internal mechanisms of the chainsaws. The bigger the group, the less likely they are to be confronted with violence.

A vivacious woman, Hong, a 40-year-old farmer and activist, has been patrolling the forest and rallying her community to protect it. “I realised what was happening to the forest when I could not live from collecting resin anymore”, she says. “We had to act. This is how I joined the Prey Lang Network and start to become more active”, she says. A mother of five, she has been relying on Prey Lang’s resources all her life. “If we do not take care of the forest, who will”? she keeps asking. Although Hong knows that this fight is larger than her life, she keeps defending Prey Lang, one log at a time.

In fact, although the Network has taken it upon itself to defend the forest, they do not have any authority to arrest the loggers or impound the wood and chainsaws. “When wood is confiscated, we inform the local pagoda about it and everything is delivered there”, explains Hong. “We have had very bad experiences with the local authorities in the past. They never collaborate to protect the forest even if it is their duty. The community is doing the government’s job”. To Lambrick, their work plays an important role in raising awareness. “What the Network is doing deters small loggers”, she says. “But the bigger fish – the ones logging illegally for large companies – are organised differently and they treat the forest as if it is their own property”, she explains, commending the courage of the Network.

In late 2015, the PLN was one of the winners of the 2015 Equator Prize, which they received in Paris.

Environmental activists are often harassed by the Cambodian officials. It is not uncommon for the members of the PLN to receive threats from local authorities. The death of Chut Wutty, a prominent environmental activist and community mentor who was killed in 2012, stills weighs heavily on the community. In March 2016, a member of the Network was attacked with a machete while he was asleep during a patrol. Environmental activists from all over Cambodia add to such an ever-growing list of victims of violence, so much so that Cambodia was named one of the most dangerous countries for environmental activists by Global Witness.

Like nomadic herders, they choose a new home every night, lying in the cover of darkness to avoid detection, comforted by the belief they are protected by the Neaktah. Although their mission carries a somber purpose, the Kuy share laughter and stories that remind them of the sovereignty of the surrounding trees. More than a patrol, this mission is a part of ancestral Kuy practice.

Loun Hon collecting resin in Prey Lang forest © Antoin Raab/ The Ruom Collective 

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Original article by Clothilde Le Coz/The Ruom Collective

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