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China's demand for natural resources is being felt in a big way in the Southeast Asian nation of Cambodia. Illegal logging and economic land concessions awarded to businesses are threatening Cambodia's dwindling forests, which, as Michael Sullivan reports, now echo with the sound of chain saws.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHAIN SAW)
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: This is the sound of one of Southeast Asia's largest lowland forests dying one tree at a time.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHAIN SAW)
SULLIVAN: This is Prey Lang Forest, an eight-hour journey north and east of the capital. And illegal loggers see forests like this one as cash cows.
Suwanna Gauntlett heads the Phnom Penh office of Wildlife Alliance.
SUWANNA GAUNTLETT: It is just like in the United States in the '60s when every single redwood tree was the target for an illegal logger. It's the same thing in Cambodia. It's a natural resource that's worth a lot of money.
SULLIVAN: And plenty of people with money in China's growing middle class in particular, says Conservation International's Tracy Farrell, eager to spend it on furniture made of luxury hardwood.
TRACY FARRELL: You also have the fact that other countries have been culling or reducing the extraction of their own luxury wood. Like Thailand has been becoming much more strict about illegal wood leaking out of the country. So that puts the pressure on the countries who are less strict. So Laos and Cambodia are really, really struggling.
SULLIVAN: Both Conservation International and Wildlife Alliance have been working with Cambodia's government to protect some of the forests. And those efforts have been hugely successful in slowing the rate of forest decline there. But without this protection, Suwanna Gauntlett says...
GAUNTLETT: Six months - six to eight months, it'd be all gone. It all be wiped out, believe me.
SULLIVAN: But Prey Lang Forest to the north doesn't have the same kind of protection. And forests threatened not just by illegal loggers but by so-called economic concessions, large tracts of land awarded by the government to agribusinesses on the forests' borders, land often used to launder wood taken out of the forest illegally.
Eoun Sopapheap is tired of watching the forest disappear. He's part of a local activist network in Sandan. And he and a few others are gassing up their motorcycles for a journey into the forest to catch illegal loggers in the act.
EOUN SOPAPHEAP: (Through Translator) The forest is our rice bowl. We all depend on it to live. We tap the resin trees and sell the sap in the market. And we use the money to buy rice and to pay for our children's school fees. If we lose those trees, we lose everything. So it's up to us.
SULLIVAN: He fires up his motorcycle and starts the journey into the forest. In less than an hour, we find the first of many newly felled trees not far from the road, a chain saw humming in the distance.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)
SULLIVAN: It's a resin tree, one of the men explains. Its trunk still oozing sap. It's worth about $750 to a logger, he says. But for those who live here, a source of sustainable income has now been eliminated forever. The chain saw draws us deeper into the forest.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHAIN SAW)
SULLIVAN: The underbrush is thick and rips at the flesh. It takes about 30 minutes to go 100 yards and then a clearing and a glum-looking logger. He says he's not from around here and that his boss offered him $10 to cut this tree.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)
SULLIVAN: I know it's illegal, he says, but what can I do? I don't have any other work, and I have to support my family. The activists let him go but keep his chain saw. They're after bigger fish and find one on the road a few miles further in.
It's a tractor pulling a large stack of freshly cut timber. And the guy who owns it, the driver claims, is the district deputy police chief who shows up not long after, looking annoyed. The activists tell him they're burning the wood and reporting him to the Interior Ministry. The policeman protests, claiming the wood was legally cut and belongs not to him but to the owner of a land concession in the district.
Chhim Savuth is having none of it. He's with the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and knows the area well.
CHHIM SAVUTH: (Foreign language spoken)
SULLIVAN: First, he says, that land concession is some 30 miles from here and, he says, their license expired a year ago. Exasperated, the police chief whips out his phone and says he's calling his boss. But he's not talking about his police superior. He's talking about the owner of the company, the man paying him to protect the illegal shipment. He walks away a bit but is still within earshot.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)
SULLIVAN: The human rights activist listens in and, he says, overhears the boss telling the cop to offer the activists money to make the problem go away. But it doesn't come to that because, just then, several hard-looking men on motorbikes pull up, gun thugs here to back up the chief.
The activists are suddenly outnumbered in the middle of the forest and it's getting dark. They decide to retreat. Back in the capital, Ou Virak, who heads the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, says that was a good call, especially with the police involved.
OU VIRAK: In any of these situations - in the middle of nowhere, with so much money and so much interests at stake - they're willing to do quite a lot. So it could turn ugly pretty quickly. And if anything happened, they could just blame anybody.
SULLIVAN: Ou Virak says the incident perfectly illustrates the extent of the collusion between local officials and the illegal logging trade in many parts of the country and how difficult it will be to stop the practice.
For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan.