PREY LANG’S “AVATARS”
Most everyone has seen James Cameron’s movie, “Avatar,” but how many people realize that all over the world there are indigenous people fighting similar battles… just like the blue folks in the film.
Prey Lang’s “avatar” communities are fighting to save the forest, not just for their own sake but for the sake of Cambodia and the world.
Cambodian farmers and fishers, around the country, have noted that widespread deforestation has been followed by environmental changes including unpredictable weather, periods of drought and flood, declines in ground water and soil fertility, changes in insects, and loss of biodiversity, including foods and medicinal plants.
“Too many forests have gone already,” Vong Phan, a 56-year old grandmother from Stung Treng. “We cannot lose another one, especially one as important as Prey Lang.”
In the early 2000s, Prey Lang communities began advocating for Prey Lang’s conservation. Together with other forest communities, they were instrumental in pressuring the government to end large-scale commercial logging. In 2004, with at least a temporary reprieve for Prey Lang, several communities agreed forest rules and attempted cooperation for protecting the forest.
In 2007, the Prey Lang Network began to emerge. Spanning most of the traditional forest villages around the forest, the Network has members from all four Prey Lang provinces.
“It is not reasonable to think only about the areas of the forest close to us,” Sim Sean, 36, of Kampong Thom said. “We must think about the forest as a whole. Would you say to someone in danger, I will save your life but only your heart. We agree to cut off your arms and legs because they are not important. No, we would save try to save the whole person.”
With that in mind, many Prey Lang communities have agreed their own forest use rules and cooperate on forest patrols to discourage illegal activities. They raise their own funds to do so.
“If we don’t take care of the forest, who will?” Pok Hong, a Preah Vihear mother of 5 children, asked. “We’ve borrowed the forest from our children. We must protect it for them.”
Since 2009, the Prey Lang Network has petitioned the government numerous times to save the forest. They have volunteered their network as co-managers of the forest.
“We Kuy people have been here for generations, and the forest did not disappear,” Ru Lark, Kuy elder unsure of his age said. “We know how to take care of the forest but in the face of new development we need the government’s commitment and help to protect and manage the forest in a sustainable way.”
Cambodia’s Forest Administration has identified Prey Lang as an important area for conservation, with high potential for carbon-credit financing. But the fact that Prey Lang remains unprotected and that concessions continue to be awarded even in primary forest, calls that plan into question.
In early 2011, rubber concessionaires accelerated their clearing of forests. Almost 400 Prey Lang Network activists from around the forest converged on the clearing sites to advocate against the cutting. They maintained their vigil for more than three days but eventually disbanded when their food and water supplies were cut and they were surrounded by hundreds of armed personnel.
But they have not given up their fight.
“This forest is important for everyone,” Phai Vun Leang, 48, asserted. “Without forest, there is no life.”
The Prey Lang Network is now taking their plea to the world.
Phai Vun Leang continued “In the Kuy language, Prey Lang means “our forest.” This forest is for everyone. Prey Lang is our forest but it is your forest, too. You can help save it.”