“Tell me how can we fix Khmer culture,” my driver asked me, as we sat outside the CRCK rubber concession in Prey Lang forest.
“Education, education, education,” I replied. “So that people know corruption is wrong and can be stopped.”
“Yes, but our leaders, they are rich and they were educated overseas. They have education, but it seems to make no difference,” he retorted. “What can we do?”
It’s heartbreaking to see the rapid destruction of the last and largest primary forest of its kind left on the Indochina peninsula.
About 3,600 square kilometres of land that is quickly falling victim to the chainsaw.
Tens of thousands of people who live around the forest and rely on it for their livelihood are seeing their primary source of income disappear.
Resin trees are protected under the constitution from being felled.
Villagers can tap the resin and sell it for use as a sealant on boats, as a fragrant oil, and the flammable properties of some species allow it to be used as a slow-burn wick.
About 20,000 of these trees were felled in the first six month of this year alone. And that was just in one district.
People are going hungry and growing angry.
And it’s not just the resin trees. Luxury Asian hardwoods are being picked off and shipped off at night.
Locals talk of hearing the sound of chainsaws after dark in the forest. Other villagers who have moved to the area are hired for their oxcarts to help drag the logs deep out of the forest, indirectly complicit in the destruction.
Activists say if the cutting continues at its present rate, there will be nothing left in a year.
At the CRCK concession, they were meant to plant rubber. The land was cleared, the trees felled, but the land wasn’t suitable for rubber. So now they grow cassava.
Yet it’s guarded by police armed with AK47s and M16s.
We need the guns to protect ourselves, the police tell me.
“From what?” I ask.
I can’t get an answer, but they are here to confront several hundred villagers from the four provinces that cover Prey Lang, who’ve been trekking deep through the forest for the last three or four days to protest against the logging.
The district governors have been ordered to get their villagers back. How they hope to do this is not clear, but police reinforcements have been arriving over the last 24 hours.
The last time villagers tried to protest outside CRCK they were surrounded by armed police and prevented from even fetching water from the river for two days until they had to give up.
The deputy district governor told us there would be 500 police to stop the protest.
If they can put that much effort into stopping a protest, you have to ask why they can’t do the same to protect the last great wilderness in Cambodia.