Cambodian activist Ouch Leng’s efforts to stop illegal logging in the country’s forests have been recognized by the Goldman Environmental Prize. The former government official has been helping poor villagers for almost two decades to fight poaching of precious forests. The Goldman Prize honors grassroots environmental activism.

Cambodian Activist Ouch Leng Wins Goldman Prize

Ouch Leng to use Prize money to fight illegal logging

A large chunk of timber trade in the Southeast Asian country is protected by the military officials that make money from deals with the loggers. Ouch Leng realizes that fighting them could prove deadly. His fellow environmentalist Chut Wutthy was shot dead in 2012. Leng said the risk had become part of his mission to stop illegal logging by the rich and powerful. He is also fighting to stop the Economic Land Concessions (ELCs) that have forced almost a million Cambodians out of their homes.

Leng goes deep into forests with only a GPS locator and a camera to track illegal loggers. Sometimes he works undercover by posing as a tourist, hauling cargo, or even cooking for loggers. According to the United Nations, land rights conflicts are the biggest human rights issue in Cambodia. The Southeast Asian country used to be heavily forested until recently. Its forest cover has declined from 73% in 1990 to 57% in 2010 and 48% in 2014.

“The situation is getting worse year after year,” said Ouch Leng. He said the Goldman Prize money would help support community-level efforts and forest patrols to fight illegal logging. Loggers are driven by huge demand for high-value hardwoods such as Siamese rosewood from countries like China. The rosewood can fetch up to $50,000 for a cubic meter.

Other winners

Leng won $175,000 for the 2016 Goldman Prize. Here are five other winners:

  1. Edward Loure, Tanzania: To protect environment for future generations, Loure developed an approach to secure land titles to indigenous communities instead of individuals
  2. Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera, Puerto Rico: He led a massive campaign that resulted in the establishment of a nature reserve, which is nesting ground for the endangered leatherback turtle
  3. Zuzana Caputova, Slovakia: This lawyer’s campaign forced authorities to shut down a toxic waste dump
  4. Destiny Watford, United States: A Baltimore student who mobilized support to prevent construction of the country’s largest trash incinerator plant near her school
  5. Maxima Acuna, Peru: A farmer who took on giant mining companies that wanted to capture her farmland for gold and copper mine.