Phnom Penn

An activist’s undercover work to shed light the extent of illegal logging in Cambodia’s forests has been recognised by the Goldman Environmental Prize. Leng Ouch gathered evidence to highlight how land concessions (ELCs) were being abused and forcing communities from their homes. His outspoken criticism of the government led to fears for his safety, forcing Mr Ouch into hiding. In 2014, the government cancelled ELCs that covered 89,000 hectares of forest. Despite this, Mr Ouch said he felt the plight of the nation’s forests was not improving. “The situation is getting worse year after year,” he told BBC News. “There is no improvement, there is more destruction. There is more deforestation and more demand from overseas.

“We have lost millions of hectares of land through the land concessions.” It is reported that Cambodia has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, and just 20-30 percent of its original forest cover remains.

One of the driving forces is the demand from nations like China for high-value hardwoods, such as Siamese rosewood that can fetch US $50,000 (£35,000) for a cubic metre.

Another cause for the high deforestation rate is the introduction of Economic Land Concessions (ELCs) in 2001, which were designed to support economy-boosting large-scale agriculture, such as rubber and sugar plantations.

However, the issuing of the ELCs has affected many communities that depended on the land for their livelihoods. Campaigners say that more than 700,000 people have been driven from their homes as a result of ELCs.

Leng Ouch’s work has taken him undercover and placed him in extreme danger as he attempted to gather evidence of the impact of the ELCs on forests and forest people. Posing as a labourer, he was able to shed light how the land concessions were being used to provide cover for illegal operations.

In 2012, a moratorium was imposed on ELCs, but Mr Ouch argued that it did not go far enough and did not stop forests being felled and people being displaced. Mr Ouch explained why he had spent more than two decades investigating and campaigning to highlight the injustices he felt he had witnessed. “There are not many people in Cambodia that do this kind of work and I felt it was necessary for me to step in and defend and protect the forests,” he observed.

However, he was aware of the dangers of being an environmental campaigner in Cambodia and had often gone into hiding in order to avoid unwanted attention and threats to his life. Winning a globally prestigious environmental prize does not remove the dangers. In March, Berta Caceres - a 2015 Gold Prize winner - was killed by gunmen in Honduras. She had been a vocal campaigner against a project to build a massive dam across the Gualcarque River.