For centuries, the Kuy people have guarded Prey Lang, “Our Forest,” as the source of life, a spiritual center, and the provider for most of their needs. The core area of primary lowland evergreen forest covers about 200,000 acres, surrounded by 670,000 acres of secondary forest. All together, the forest contains seven distinct ecosystems, provides habitat for more than 50 endangered animal and bird species, and is still largely unexplored by scientists. Elephants still roam through Prey Lang, a rarity in country whose primary forests shrank from 70 percent of the land mass in 1970 to a mere 3.1 percent today. Prey Lang is a vital source of water for Cambodia’s rice-growing region and for the Mekong Delta.
The Kuy people build their villages and rice fields around Prey Lang’s edges and venture into the forest to hunt and fish, to gather fruits and herbs, and for ceremonies. They tap several tree species to extract resin, which they use to make torches and caulk boats. Resin has become the main source of cash for many Kuy families who sell it for industrial use. They protect the resin trees as their livelihood. Now they are fighting for their right to continue protecting Prey Lang.
They won their first battle in 2002 when, along with other forest communities, they persuaded the government to ban logging concessions. But their victory was short-lived because the government continued to grant concessions to agro-industry and mining companies. To carry on the fight, the Kuy, with other Indigenous and non-Indigenous villagers, formed the Prey Lang Network and ramped up their protests. This year they gained national attention when they staged demonstrations in Phnom Penh painted blue, wearing leaf hats, and calling themselves Cambodia’s “avatars,” after the James Cameron film. Thirty thousand Cambodians thumb-printed their petition to save Prey Lang, and more than a dozen national NGOs endorsed it. But increased visibility has brought increased repression. Police armed with AK47s have broken up Network meetings, and members are being threatened with physical harm and criminal charges.
The best hope for Prey Lang is management by the people who have always protected it. As Kuy elder Ru Lark says, “We Kuy people have been here for generations, and the forest did not disappear.” The Prey Lang Network is calling for international support for its petition to co-manage Prey Lang in partnership with the government and forest management professionals.
As your contribution to the International Year of Forests, will you support the Kuy people by writing a letter to the prime minister of Cambodia? As Kuy activist Thai Bunleang insists, “Prey Lang is your forest, too!”
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