The Cambodian government has banned the screening of a new film, “I am Chut Wutty”, about a Cambodian environmentalist murdered in April 2012. As a result, the Cambodian version of the film has been watched 12 thousand times on Facebook.
The film is directed and produced by Fran Lambrick, who researched her doctorate in Prey Lang forest. The film is available to buy or rent on Vimeo.
Prey Lang forest is one of the last remaining areas of intact lowland rainforest in mainline southeast asia. The film starts by following villagers into the forest. They are there to harvest resin, one of the most important sources of income for villagers.
The film includes footage from 2011, showing Wutty working in the forest, talking and joking with villagers. He asks about illegal logging in the province.
“We’ve seen police and the military carrying out logging,” a villager replies.
Tumring: Monocultures of rubber replacing forest
The film follows Chut Wutty and Marcus Hardtke, a German environmentalist and Wutty’s close friend, on a visit to the Tumring rubber plantation. The company got the land as a concession and started cutting the forest. “It was a deception to pacify the local people,” Wutty explains. “They were told, ‘cutting trees in the land concession is only clearing degraded land’ but in reality they cut high value forest and sold it off.”
The company also cut the most valuable trees from the surrounding forests. The work to clear the land for the plantation could have been done in a few months, Hardtke says. “But they deliberately took two years or more, just to have more time to exploit the surrounding areas.”
In 2001, Hun Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister, visited Tumring Commune. In a speech he told the villagers,
“Our people have been transformed from rice and slash-and-burn farmers into workers and owners of the family rubber plantation. A collector of wood resin with unstable income has become a rubber plantation worker in the community who can generate adequate, stable revenue to support his or her own family. These positive changes are of critical importance for their livelihood, reflecting the implementation of the government poverty reduction agenda.”
In the film, Hun Sen appears on television, smiling in front of a row of microphones, telling Cambodians that,
“If you tap resin, the logging concessions aren’t happy and you don’t know when they’ll cut down your trees. We need to change people here. Change from collecting resin, tapping resin to tapping rubber. In the new century Tumring will be the place that changes before anywhere else from subsistence farming working in different areas all the time, expending a lot of labour to cultivating with security.”
The company cleared land, replacing the forest with a rubber monoculture. Writing about the concession in 2004, researcher Andrew Cock explained that,
The promotion of a rubber plantation in the heavily forested Tum Ring commune of Kompong Thom illustrates how poverty reduction can be used to justify a development strategy having a very detrimental impact on a community. Poor planning combined with corruption and weak institutional mechanisms to review government decision-making led to the clearing of a highly valuable forest area. Tum Ring is significant because the justification for the rubber plantation development scheme, and by implication the logging and clearing operations, was that it would help to reduce the “poverty” of the residents of the commune. Perversely, many of these people have been deprived of the forest resources and forestlands that formed the basis of their livelihoods.
Today, the Tumring Rubber company wants to expand, “but we cannot find any more unused land,” the company CEO explains.
“In fact, the favourable land to plant rubber belongs to the local households. If we get help from the government and Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, we think we can get that land to plant rubber trees. But it seems impossible to obtain that land from the people because on that land they have their fields. It’s a shame, I don’t want them to have those fields, they will discard the old cleared land and move on to clear new land. They cannot make money from doing that. They do not have clear goals in their life.
The Tumring rubber plantation is just one of many economic land concessions that the government has handed out to its cronies.
Protests and threats
The film shows a protest where villagers burn timber they have confiscated, to prevent the loggers from profiting from the destruction of their forests. “Initially I didn’t expect them to target me,” Chut Wutty says. But armed military arrived and grabbed him. The villagers came to his rescue saying, “If you’re going to arrest him, arrest all of us.”
Wutty’s wife, Sam Chanty, explains in the film that after the attack, the US Embassy in Phnom Penh offered to take Wutty to the USA, for his own safety. Wutty refused, “because he loves this country”, his wife says.
The Embassy also offered to pay for a bodyguard. Wutty again refused.
Wutty was murdered while investigating a yellow vine factory in the Cardamom mountains.
In the film, Marcus Hardtke describes an important part of the problem relating to deforestation and land rights in Cambodia:
“[Wutty] was not afraid to talk. In Cambodia now, the major NGOs, many of the donor representatives, and UN agencies are simply too afraid to even talk about these problems. That’s why he became more and more prominent.”
Globally, three environmental activists are killed every week. The situation in Cambodia has worsened since Wutty’s death. Lambrick is launching an campaign called “N1M – Not One More”, a global support and protection network for environmental defenders at risk.