State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Case study: Cambodia's Kuy people rally to save 'our forest'

By Mao Chanthoeun

I am Mao Chanthoeun, a Kuy, from Chaom Svay Village near Prey Lang forest in Kampong Thom, Cambodia.

I was born here about 30 years ago. My parents and grandparents were also born here. We've always been dependent on Prey Lang, which in Kuy means 'our forest'.

When I was young, the forest was large and thick. Prey Lang gave us food, medicines, and housing materials. We collected resin for sale. Since resin trees can be tapped for generations, this was sustainable. We lived happily.

In 2002, we learned that Cambodia's forests were being destroyed. Our forest was threatened. We fought back. With hundreds of other Cambodians, we protested against logging concessions and they were suspended.

We had a time of peace. Our communities agreed rules to preserve the forest. This became harder over the years. Poaching and illegal logging took their toll.

In 2009, rubber companies came, first to build roads and then make plantations. We don't know why they would grow rubber here; the soil is not good. We think they want to profit from logging.

We began organizing our Network in 2007. The Prey Lang Community Network has members in all four provinces straddled by the forest. I've been a community representative for six years. We've petitioned the government to protect Prey Lang, cancel agro-business and mining concessions, and rehabilitate cleared areas. We also want the government to recognize us as Prey Lang's co-managers.

We conduct local patrols to try to stop illegal activities. We also went to the capital city to call on the country to help us. To get attention, we dressed like the 'avatars' we saw in a movie. When we put on blue faces, people paid attention to us.

In my community, we confronted someone who illegally cleared forest. When a group of us, including the village chief, uprooted his cassava, he brought legal complaints against us. Those are still pending.

Now we are suffering. Thousands of resin trees have been cut; many families have no income. Even our rice paddy is not good since we have lost water.

In November, when I was six months pregnant, I joined hundreds of other Network members in laying claim to the forest. For almost two weeks we walked from all directions across the forest to stop illegal activities and to confront plantation companies. The walk was difficult. We had little food and water. We were often cold in the rain.

I feared my baby had died inside me. But I had to go on for the sake of all children. Life is not worth living if we lose our forests.

My husband left me while I was pregnant. Now four months later, I am alone with my baby boy. It's not easy for me to live. Whenever I go out, others must accompany me; illegal loggers are angry with me for challenging them.

Today, in the village, a local businessman announced on a loudspeaker that everyone must shun me or face consequences. He claims I'm 'inciting' people because I tell them their rights and encourage them to protect the forest.

My community and our Network are strong. We have good cooperation. We work together to solve our problems peaceably. Now my neighbours are circulating a petition to support me.

I try not to lose hope. But it is difficult when one confiscated chainsaw is replaced by two others.

We ask the world to join us in saving Prey Lang. 'Our forest' belongs to everyone.

Case study provided by the East-West Management Institute / Prey Lang Network.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.