After a productive day—they’d encountered a gang of illegal loggers and confiscated six chain saws—the four patrollers in Cambodia’s Preah Vihear Protected Forest strung up their hammocks and settled in for the night. Come morning, they’d return to the nearest Forestry Administration station, just 2.5 miles away.
But at 1 a.m. on November 7, 2015, two intruders slipped into the campsite. They approached the hammock where Sieng Darong, 47, a leader of the Forestry Administration’s law enforcement team, lay sleeping, drew their weapons, and fired two shots—one into Darong’s head, another into his throat.
Sab Yoh, 29, a provincial police officer, was next, receiving a shot in the stomach.
The commotion woke Phet Sophoan, 30, a member of the border police, who leaped from his hammock just in time to feel a sudden, searing pain as a bullet grazed his buttock. Still, he managed to drag himself about 300 feet away, where he hid in the brush.
After the killers’ shadowy silhouettes retreated, Sophoan located the fourth member of the group, Koem Chenda, a soldier with Intervention Brigade 9’s Battalion 391. Chenda had escaped unharmed. They could hear Yoh’s groans but decided not to attempt a rescue. “We were afraid that we would be shot dead if we went back,” Sophon would tell the Phnom Penh Post. “I felt sorry for [Yoh], but I couldn’t help him.”
Hours later, when Chenda led patrolmen back to the campsite, Yoh was dead.
It was the latest in an ongoing series of violent crimes associated with illegal logging, a global contraband industry that accounts for up to 10 percent of all timber trade.
Impacts caused by those crimes have a global reach. Illegal logging is the leading cause of forest degradation worldwide and contributes to global warming. In 2013, for example, it resulted in an estimated 190 million tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. The practice also threatens critically endangered species, including orangutans and Siberian tigers, as well as local people, with impacts ranging from loss of livelihoods and land to endangerment to their lives.
Global Witness, a nonprofit organization dedicated to exposing corruption and environmental abuse, with offices in London and Washington, D.C., has confirmed the killings of more than 950 forest defenders between 2002 and 2014—activists, rangers, and indigenous people. During the past five years the murder rate has risen to two a week.
The tally is certainly an underestimate. “There are still huge gaps of information, because a lot of killings aren’t reported,” says Billy Kyte, a campaigner for Global Witness. Dependable data are lacking for many countries, such as Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, China, as well as Central Asian nations.
Illegal logging is irresistible because of the high prices luxury timbers like rosewood and mahogany fetch on the international market. A cubic meter of rosewood, for instance, can sell for $50,000 in China, and in Thailand a two-meter-long plank goes for $5,000.
China is a major destination for illicit wood. Alison Clausen, Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Madagascar director, estimates that 90 percent of Madagascar’s illegal timber winds up in China. A World Wildlife Fund report found that between 2004 and 2011, China imported two to four times more oak timber from the Russian Far East than was legally permitted.
Windfall illicit profits have spurred a logging frenzy in numerous countries, including Thailand, where Thai nationals and Cambodians sneak into national parks near the Thai-Cambodia border. They sometimes carry AK-47s, and they often get into altercations with Thai forest rangers.
“We’d like to see the government step up and treat this as a national security issue—which it is,” said Anak Pattanavibool, country director for WCS's Thailand program. “Unknown armed groups of Cambodians are coming into our country and smuggling out illegally cut trees.” Between 2008 and 2015, according to Pattanavibool, 54 Thai park rangers were killed, and 61 wounded.
Global Witness began keeping its grim statistics after Chut Wutty, an environmental investigator, activist, and reporter in Cambodia, was shot by a military police officer in 2012. Wutty, who was accompanied by two journalists, had been escorting the reporters to logging sites when he was killed.
His death made international headlines, but, according to Global Witness, within days the government dropped its investigation into his murder. Since 2010, three other journalists in Cambodia have also been found killed; two were reporting on illegal logging, the other on illegal fisheries. In November 2015, Reporters Without Borders, a nonprofit organization based in Paris, named Cambodia the most dangerous country for an environmental reporter.
In the days following Darong and Yoh’s murder, six illegal loggers with alleged military ties, and a soldier, were arrested. No charges have yet been made. According to Steve Mecinski, a law enforcement technical advisor for the World Wildlife Fund-Cambodia, “This matter becomes rather complex as media sources suggest high government officials and authorities’ involvement.”
According to the Phnom Penh Post, “the military is well known in Preah Vihear to be responsible for logging and poaching in protected areas, according to multiple sources.”
A source in Cambodia who asked not to be named out of concern about safety says it’s widely accepted, but rarely discussed, that rogue Cambodian military units are heavily involved in illegal logging throughout the country. “Military-connected cartels linked to illegal logging crimes operate with impunity,” the source told National Geographic.
The Cambodian Ministry of National Defense and the National Press Room did not respond to requests for comment about these allegations.
Funds generated from those activities—estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year—are said by the source to support the ruling party.
“In deeply corrupt countries such as Russia, Laos, and Cambodia, illicit timber extraction has become an important part of the state management system,” says Denis Smirnov, a consultant with more than 20 years experience in forest conservation, including ten years as head of WWF-Russia’s Amur-Heilong Ecoregion forest program. He now specializes in illegal logging and deforestation in Cambodia. “When government agencies are involved, you’re not protected.”
For example, in the Bajo Aguan land conflict in Honduras, in which environmental campaigners clashed with companies converting forests to palm oil plantations, between 90 and 120 protestors were killed from 2010 to 2013. According to Human Rights Watch, only seven of those deaths resulted in a trial, and none ended in convictions. Globally, “the vast majority of these crimes appear to go unpunished,” says Billy Kyte.
Kyte uses the word “appear” because information is thin. “There’s no available data on impunity rates, as this is a research task that would require global networks of people getting information directly from prosecutors’ offices in every country,” he says. “It is a herculean task to do this globally.”
Nevertheless, with pro bono help from in-country law firms, Kyte and colleagues are working to identify best practices for ensuring accountability for killings in Honduras as well as Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Costa Rica, and Uruguay.
For now, criminals can be brazen. In December 2015, illegal loggers dragged mock-up coffins bearing the names of Peruvian forestry inspectors through the streets of Iquitos—a spectacle meant to send a warning following recent crackdowns involving shipments of Peruvian Amazon timber to the U.S.
And earlier last year, Darong, one of the two Cambodians murdered in Preah Vihear Protected Forest last November, received a call from the soldier who was later arrested in connection with his shooting. The man had said he would shoot Darong if he continued to confiscate illegal logging equipment.
“This is a very dangerous job,” Darong said at the time. “I’m worried that it will take the death of a patrol team member before the dangers of our work will be taken seriously.”
Targeting Community Leaders
Indigenous people who protest illegal logging or seizures of their land are frequent victims. Global Witness found that of the 116 people killed defending territory in 2014, 47 were from indigenous communities.
The criminals often target community leaders—a strategy aimed at spreading fear and silencing people. In September 2015 in the Philippines, the paramilitary group Magahat-Bagani Forces allegedly set fire to a community building and told residents to leave or face a massacre. According to numerous media sources and human rights groups, Magahat-Bagani and other paramilitary groups work with the Philippines’ military to acquire indigenous lands for mining.
The Observers, an eyewitness site run by France 24, an international news television channel based in Paris, reports that most villagers escaped unharmed, but according to residents, men from Magahat-Bagani singled out three villagers, including a teacher, a tribal leader, and an indigenous rights activist, all of whom were involved with protesting conversion of local lands for mining.
The schoolteacher was later found dead in one of his classrooms, while Observers, Global Witness, and other news sources say that the other two men were gunned down in front of community members. Soldiers from the military’s 36th infantry battalion were allegedly in town that day but are said to have done nothing to stop the violence.
Such crimes are not confined to the Philippines. In Latin America especially, says Jeremy Radachowsky, WCS’s director of Mesoamerica and the Western Caribbean, “park staff become afraid to push for enforcement, prosecutors become afraid of investigating, and even judges are threatened and intimidated. In many cases, threats are also combined with some kind of bribe, making it very difficult for someone to say no.”
In Brazil’s eastern Amazon rain forest, one leader of the Ka’apor indigenous community recently told the nonprofit group Survival International, “There have been constant death threats against us [by illegal loggers] for a long time. Now they’re even killing to intimidate us. We don’t know what to do, because we have no protection. The state does nothing.”
But Mônica Machado Carneiro, an expert from the press office of FUNAI, the Brazilian governmental body responsible for indigenous peoples’ affairs, said in an email that FUNAI and other government institutions are aware of the situation and are actively working to reduce illegal logging and prevent crimes against indigenous people.
The U.S., Europe, and Australia have enacted legislation aimed at combating illegal timber imports, but other countries with large appetites for timber—including Japan and China—have weak provisions. In China, for instance, Global Witness reports that the government is not playing an active role in monitoring companies working in the forest sector and does not have legislation specifically prohibiting the import of illegal timber.
“So far, I don’t think there’s enough pressure to get China to care about this,” Pattanavibool says. “It's causing serious problems in other countries, but they don’t see that link.”
“Without international and market pressure, nothing will change,” Smirnov adds.
For now, individual forest defenders often remain one of the only obstacles between illegal loggers and stolen trees. “They’re doing all of humanity a huge favor by putting their lives on the line,” Radachowsky says.
In Cambodia, Phet Sophoan says that as soon as his wound heals, he plans to return to the forest. Likewise, Yuri Melini, an activist in Guatemala who has been shot seven times, continues his work ensuring the rights of indigenous communities.
These courageous people know the risks. “I am afraid, I have fear, but my fear won’t make me be quiet,” José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva, an activist in Brazil, said in a TedX talk in 2011, shortly before masked gunmen fatally shot him and his wife. “As long as I have the power to walk, I will be denouncing all of those who are harming the forest.”