July 5, 2016
Our Program Officer Lindsey Freedman looks back on her first meeting with 2016 Goldman Prize winner Leng Ouch at the end of 2015, and again on an official visit in early 2016:
Our paths crossed quite by chance in November 2015. I had spent the summer planning a three-week vacation to Cambodia and Myanmar with no way of knowing that the jury would award Cambodian forest activist Leng Ouch the Prize five days before I left. After a few unsuccessful days of trying to reach him to tell him the news, I finally caught him on his cell.
Calling winners to let them know they’ve won is one of my favorite parts of being a Program Officer, and Leng’s reaction was priceless: He kept giggling with a mixture of disbelief and joy and repeating “thank you” over and over again. I learned months later due to a bad connection that Leng thought I was calling to ask him what the price of gold was! We hurriedly made plans to have dinner in Phnom Penh the following week so that I could answer any questions he had.
What first struck me about Leng was his punctuality: Our dinner was supposed to be at 6:30pm and he arrived at 5:45pm! The second thing I noticed was his youthful, almost cherubic face, which belied the suffering of a childhood spent in poverty under the Khmer Rouge. It also hides the years of stress, and the risks he now takes to expose the appallingly rapid rate of deforestation in Cambodia’s forests. We were joined by fellow Cambodian Prize winner Sereivathana Tuy (‘Vathana’), and over Angkor beers we talked about everything; from what to expect from the Prize tour in April to measures he could take which would keep him safe in the meantime.
Vathana’s concern was apparent: Leng’s style of activism has drawn comparisons to his late colleague Chut Wutty, a fellow forest defender who was killed in April 2012. Chut’s death still hangs heavy over the environmental community in Cambodia, and some fellow activists confessed to me their fear that Leng’s persistence would one day cause him to meet a similar fate.
“Calling winners to let them know they’ve won is one of my favorite parts of being a Program Officer, and Leng’s reaction was priceless.”
The ‘Officially’ Official Visit:
Several months later I returned to Cambodia to see Leng on a more ‘official’ visit. He had just wrapped up the film shoot for his profile video, and unlike our brief exchange the previous year, we were able to spend a few days together. Leng feared that the government would pressure his family to convince him to give up his activism. He even revealed his dread that he would be killed in what would be made to seem like an accident. Sitting in a cafe in Phnom Penh, Leng told me about the very real dangers he faces — he has gone into hiding several times in the past and believes his house is being watched, not to mention the strain on his family. I was amazed by the strength of his tenacity.
My time spent with him showed me what a relentless, rebel spirit he is: Don’t let the baby face fool you for a minute! Leng is well aware that what he is doing is dangerous and risky and potentially fatal. But he does it anyway, because the alternative is to sit back in complacency while the forests disappear. While many criticize his style for openly challenging the government, Leng’s sheer perseverance has succeeded in exposing a vast network of corruption and impunity that is responsible for leveling Cambodia’s irreplaceable forests for economic gain.
A colleague of mine recently asked me if I could imagine sacrificing my life for something I believed in. I’d like to believe that I could be as unwavering and brave as Leng; that if the shoe were on the other foot I would be as steadfast as he is. The forests that sustained Leng’s family through those terrible years of genocide under the Khmer Rouge now desperately need a champion to protect them. Watching the spark in Leng’s eye as he speaks about his work and his motivations, I can only assume that on some level he is reciprocating his survival by doing whatever he can to ensure that the forests survive as well.
I’ve never met anyone quite like Leng and I’m proud to work with such an indomitable, determined individual. Leng’s strength buoys my own spirit and solidifies my conviction that one person can change the world. I feel profoundly grateful to have had a front-row seat as we honored Leng’s unflagging dedication. I cannot wait to see what this remarkable man accomplishes next.
“The forests that sustained Leng’s family now desperately need a champion to protect them.”
As Leng said on receiving his award: “I’m not afraid to speak out. The forests are treasures that our ancestors have left for us.” You can join him and demand that Cambodia’s Minister of the Environment shut down the sawmills and save the country’s embattled forests.