Cambodian activist and human rights lawyer Ouch Leng was on Monday awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for his undercover investigations into the country’s illegal logging trade and advocacy work with communities affected by deforestation and land grabbing.
The annual award has since 1989 recognized individuals for significant contributions toward protecting the natural world, often at great personal risk.
In an interview last week, the 42-year-old Mr. Leng said that at the center of his work was the belief that direct action is the best way for communities to get their voices heard.
“Sometimes I suggest to the people to block the road, to sleep in the middle of the road, in order to urge the government to solve the problem for them,” he said. “If they don’t block the road to protest to show demonstration to the government, no one will come out to resolve the problem.”
Born into a poor farming family in Takeo province shortly before the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia, Mr. Leng moved to Phnom Penh with his parents in 1980.
Scavenging for recyclable paper as a child, Mr. Leng said he would peer through the windows of a school in an attempt to listen in on lessons. After three years of eavesdropping, Mr. Leng was eventually allowed into the classroom.
“When I’d go to study, we did not have anything to eat so my dad would pack only rice because we didn’t have [other] food,” he said.
Despite his difficult upbringing, Mr. Leng excelled in school and was eventually awarded a scholarship to law school, before joining local rights group Licadho in 1999 and then Adhoc in 2005 to investigate illegal logging and land grabbing.
In 2011, the activist founded the Cambodia Human Rights Task Force to focus on covert investigations into some of the country’s most powerful timber traders.
By 2012, he was routinely posing as an employee of businessman Try Pheap, who has been surrounded by accusations of using his extensive land holdings to launder vast quantities of illegally logged wood—claims that representatives of the tycoon have denied.
In 2013, Mr. Leng produced a report outlining extensive illegal logging operations overseen by Mr. Pheap.
“In the forests, I worked for three months undercover,” Mr. Leng said.
“I would interview with workers and company managers there. I also found officers from the government, Forestry Administration, environmental officials, police alongside the road, commune chiefs [and] districts governors also take the money from the timber trucks.”
Over his years of investigations, Mr. Leng—who was a close friend of Chut Wutty, the environmental activist gunned down in 2012—has faced countless threats from loggers.
“I’m never scared of the gun. Sometimes they point the gun at me and the gunman says ‘You study a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree, why you take a picture of me?’”
“In my mind, I think, ‘You have a gun. Why…don’t you shoot me?’” Mr. Leng laughed, going on to recall another occasion when two soldiers threatened him with firearms while he was undercover in a protected area that Mr. Pheap’s company was logging.
Mr. Leng, who regularly moves between residences for fears of retribution by those with a stake in the logging trade, said that while the Goldman prize brought international recognition, it also made him a target.
“They cannot arrest me to put me in the prison because I have a lot of lawyers and I have a lot of friends from the national and international NGOs,” he said. “They know that I work [on] illegal logging, so what they need is to find me and kill me.”
Mr. Leng said he was pessimistic about Cambodia’s environmental prospects under the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“I think the government just promises to protect the forest, just on the paper, in order to cheat the international community and donors and also to cheat the local people to vote for the CPP only,” he said, taking aim at a new anti-logging task force established by the prime minister earlier this year and headed by National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha.
“Now he has set up the working group…to shoot the rockets against the illegal loggers or to arrest the tycoons, but until now—many months already—and no one has been arrested and nothing has happened,” he said.
“If we don’t protect the forest in time, [and] Hun Sen wins the elections for the next mandate, everything is completely finished.”
National Military Police spokesman Eng Hy questioned Mr. Leng’s claims and said he had previously asked the activist to share any evidence he had of continued illegal logging.
“I do not know where he is getting the information about illegal logging still happening. I have told the organization of Mr. Ouch Leng that if they know about illegal logging happening, they should report to our task force and we will take action immediately,” he said.
Officials at the Environment Ministry, Agriculture Ministry and Forestry Administration could not be reached on Monday for comment.
(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap)