Before he received the Prize earlier this year, we spoke to Leng Ouch to learn about what inspired him to fight for the protection of over 200,000 acres of pristine forest in one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be an environmental defender:
Where did you grow up?
I was born in the province of Takéo, about 50km from Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. This was just a couple of years before the Pol Pot regime began in 1975. I was six years old when our land was taken and my family and I moved from forest to forest to try to survive during the dictatorship. I moved to Phnom Penh when the civil war was over in 1980.
What was life like for people while Pol Pot was in power?
During the Pol Pot regime, the land was being taken from people from rural communities, including indigenous people; his government was basically declaring war on them. Before the regime, people had the right to their land, their property. The current government doesn’t kill like Pol Pot did, but takes advantage of these communities and doesn’t obey the law. The current government isn’t killing with guns, but killing livelihoods by taking the land.
How did the regime affect you personally?
My family and I can no longer claim that land in Takéo. We still live in Phnom Penh but are struggling; we are recycling bottles and cans to make money. My family are farmers, their lives depended on the land and natural resources, and there was no other work. When my family went to Phnom Penh, we didn’t have good jobs, just collected rubbish or worked in construction. My father was a tuk tuk (taxi) driver and my wife is a garment worker. My family wasn’t the only one. Millions of rural people are becoming beggars in the city. Their children don’t have the time for school and just ask for money along the road.
And yet you went on to become a human rights lawyer. How did you get yourself through law school?
To support myself through school I helped the teacher; by tutoring other students and sweeping the floors. My mother had a mental illness, so my father came to the city to be a taxi driver and so didn’t have any money to send me to school. Talking about it I’m in tears, I had to scavenge pieces of paper so I could do my homework. I was given a scholarship in 1993 to attend university.
How did you choose this path as your career, to defend the forests?
I was a human rights activist for nearly 20 years and then I decided to create my own NGO, the Cambodia Human Rights Task Forces (CHRTF). I created it because no one else would dare work with illegal logging and forest issues in Cambodia. People working on these issues had been killed.
This is why I went to law school. To help my people know their rights as the government continues to take advantage of poor, uneducated people.
What inspired you to start the organization?
I have been involved with land and forest issues since 2000 when I began to research ELCs (Economic Land Concessions). Since then, I have released data and helped to create reports on land and forest issues and more recently exposed the illegal activities of business tycoon and timber magnate Try Pheap. Until now I have funded my own investigations exposing the government’s sale of illegal land concessions.
My motivation comes from my love for the forests; I dedicated the resources I had to work on forest issues. My family and I don’t have any more land which could be taken from us; but what I am concerned about is the huge amounts of land that was granted to private companies for ELCs.
I hated that Try Pheap was allowed to export timber illegally with no intervention from the government. They are destroying our environmental heritage; affecting my generation and future ones too.
I know that my life is at risk and I can be charged with criminal offenses by the government, but I have to fight for the next generation and raise awareness around illegal logging in Cambodia.
Why did you target Try Pheap specifically?
Try Pheap and his company has been cutting down trees for many years. He has the monopoly of the market; his company alone has the right to collect all the timber in Cambodia. It’s one of the biggest logging businesses in Cambodia, exporting to China with government support. That’s why I’m challenging the government to stop giving licenses to these companies.
In 2012, the government offered a moratorium to the land concessions that were not followed through, resulting in protests. How did these come about?
I was leading the protests and blocking the roads. We wanted to send a message to the government that if they don’t slow down with the ELCs, the people will continue to protest to get their land back.
How did the government react to the protests?
The government didn’t mention my involvement in the protests, just talked about a young man with a ‘big liver’ (it’s a saying in Cambodia to denote someone brave and bold), who led the land revolution!
Cambodia is one of the most dangerous countries to be an activist; what motivated you to keep on fighting?
I knew that and I didn’t want people to get poorer and poorer. ELCs were destroying the livelihoods of indigenous people who depend on the forest; such as collecting resin from the trees and harvesting mushrooms. I am not supported by an agency, but I want to work in illegal logging and urge the government to stop giving licenses to companies. All of this to protect the remaining forests in Cambodia. Climate change will accelerate without the forests and natural disasters will become more frequent. I encourage my children and the younger generation to stand up for their rights; protest if there’s something wrong and ensure that they don’t take away the little forest we have left.
“The [illegal loggers] are destroying our environmental heritage; affecting my generation and future ones too.”
What was it like working undercover? Were you afraid?
Yes. I worked as a day laborer so I could get information about the company, and also went undercover as a cook and a tourist.
The government knows my name but not the face. Sometimes I do feel scared because they have guns. I have my camera but it’s hidden under my clothes. I’ll sit in the mud and wear dirty clothes so they won’t search me. Those guards don’t like touching dirty people so they don’t come close to me because I’m muddy. Try Pheap’s people would point the gun at me to search for a camera. Luckily I would sit in muddy water and they won’t go there to confiscate my camera.
Are you still in hiding?
Yes, I’m hiding from the government. I continue to write reports about illegal logging. The first report from CHRTF came out in 2013 and the Minister of the Environment wanted to know who the author was so that he could file a complaint of defamation against the report. The government detectives came to my house and asked my wife where her husband was; but I escaped.
“They [employees of logging tycoon Try Pheap] would point the gun at me to search for a camera.”
The government has cancelled 23 land concessions, including two in Virachey National Park. Is there a risk that the land is returned to private hands?
This is why my work will continue because the government has signed the papers and given the land back to the people, but there is no guarantee that one day they’re going to come back and say we’re going to take it back. For example, Try Pheap’s company cut down the trees and then returned the land to the government. But the area was left barren and covered in tree stumps.
If you could achieve one thing, what would that be? And what can others do to support your cause?
For the government to stop issuing illegal licenses like ELCs. They need to take back the land from private enterprises and give it back to the people. ELCs are what’s making the forest disappear. If the forest is destroyed, biodiversity is destroyed.
I would like people to stop buying wood from China, and for the U.S. to stop importing wood from Cambodia. You can also join me and demand that Cambodia’s Minister of the Environment shut down the sawmills and save our forests!