PHNOM PENH, Cambodia Hang Serei Oudom told his 7-month pregnant wife that he was going out to meet a source.
A journalist for Vorakchun Khmer Daily, he was investigating illegal logging for luxury woods in the jungles of Cambodia's northeastern Ratanakkiri province.
Three days later, on Sept. 11, he was found in the trunk of his car, which had been abandoned in a remote cashew nut plantation. "According to the autopsy report, his head was beaten in with a sharp tool, like an axe or a machete," said investigating judge Luch Lao. "We are investigating the case."
They needn't look much further than Oudom's last article, activists contend. On Sept. 7, he had published a piece accusing local military police captain Ing Sieng Lay of smuggling timber in military vehicles. Oudom, 44, "wrote many articles on illegal logging, social issues and land grabbing," according to his editor-in-chief, Rin Ratanak.
Oudom is the third victim this year whose murder appears related to logging and land grabbing in Cambodia. Dozens of villagers and activists have been jailed or injured trying to defend forests and land rights.
As destruction of Cambodia's tropical forests intensifies, concerned villagers and activists across this poor, small Southeast Asian nation are rising up to defend their country's precious resources. But by doing so, they are becoming targets for persecution, violence and even killings, by powerful private interests that profit from the timber trade.
In April, prominent environmental activist Chut Wutty was killed, allegedly by military police, in southwest Cambodia while investigating illegal timber trade. In May, a 14-year-old girl was shot dead by security forces during a forced eviction of a village in central Kratie province.
Mam Sonando, an independent radio station owner, was convicted to 20 years in prison on Oct 1 for inciting a "secessionist movement" in the evicted village -- a charge that rights groups describe as baseless.
"[M]ost powerful people in the province" benefit from the timber trade, and will strike at anyone who interferes, according to Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator for local human rights group Adhoc.
So far, police have arrested two suspects in Oudom's murder, but Bonnar thinks more influential figures, like high-ranking officials, are behind the killing. "Everyone here suspects that," he said.
According to UK-based watchdog Global Witness, violence over Cambodia's natural resources has reached "unprecedented levels." The victims "should be heralded as national heroes for protecting the environment and their communities; instead they face increasing persecution while those responsible walk free," said Global Witness director Patrick Alley.
The killings, he said, "are indicative of the increasing fight by Cambodia's political and business elite to grab what remains of the country's land and forests for themselves and eliminate anyone who gets in their way."
Cambodian Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said such assertions were overblown. "When one reporter is killed because he reports on illegal logging, it doesn't mean the whole country is bad," he said.
Siphan denied that Cambodian forests are being stripped by a powerful few. "We are rehabilitating the forests," he said. "Everything is under control."
Forests decline, timber trade booms
Until the early 1990s, Cambodia's tropical jungles remained mostly untouched. Large conservation areas were created in 1993. However, decades of ineffective environmental protection and several years of government-approved logging caused forests to dwindle.
About 2.8 million hectares -- an area nearly the size of Belgium -- was lost between 1990 and 2010, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, which estimated that 10 million hectares, or 57 percent of the country, remained forested in 2010.
Since then, forest losses have dramatically worsened following an upsurge in illegal logging of luxury wood species, and a rapid increase in large-scale forest clearing by licensed agro-industrial companies.
Luxury wood species, often referred to as rosewood, are protected in all Mekong region countries, but Chinese demand is driving a rampant black market trade, according to the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency.
The brownish-red wood is prized in China for traditional luxury furniture sets that "now fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars," the agency said in a February report. An unprocessed cubic meter of rosewood is worth up to $50,000 in China.
Powerful officials, businessmen and military commanders run the trade, hiring poor villagers to do the hard labor. Some are even sending workers into nearby Thai national parks to smuggle back rosewood. Many villagers do not return, as Thai border guards have been quick to gun down smugglers on first sight. Scores have died in recent years.
"At least 31 villagers were killed from early this year until September. The number increased from 16 deaths in the whole of last year," said Srey Naren, Adhoc coordinator in the border province Oddar Meanchey.
On Nov 3, three Cambodians were shot dead by Thai soldiers in Trat province, on the border with Cambodia's Battambang province, after they were caught logging rosewood, according to media reports.
"The authorities have limited ability to stop it since most of the traders are powerful people," he said. "Some of them are generals." The villagers are persuaded to risk their lives by traders who offer up to $1,500 per cubic meter of smuggled rosewood, which can be sold on for $5,000 in the capital Phnom Penh, from where it goes to neighboring Vietnam and eventually China, according to Naren.
While the booming rosewood trade has emboldened criminal logging rings, the single biggest threat to Cambodian forests has been the rapid increase in agro-industrial estates for crops such as rubber. The government has long touted investment in plantations as an important rural development model, but in recent years the number of approved concessions has jumped, and firms now control about 2.1 million hectares of land, according to research by local rights group Licadho.
The concessions are highly controversial, as companies are accused of human rights violations and large-scale land grabbing in farming communities. In May, the government announced a moratorium on plantations, but rights groups say it is filled with loopholes.
The spread of concessions has lead to massive deforestation as many are allocated in the dense forests of southwest and northeast Cambodia. Increasingly, plantations are also being approved in national parks, where about 400,000 hectare -- or 15 percent of Cambodia's protected dry land forest -- has been lost since 2010, according to Licadho.
Ministry of Environment officials have insisted that only "degraded forest" on the fringes of parks is being converted, but in practice, companies are allowed to clear-cut and sell pristine parts of protected forest, ostensibly to develop the areas into plantations. In central Cambodia for instance, Boeng Per wildlife sanctuary lost 22 percent of its forest cover, located in its untouched core, while in Ratanakkiri, firms were granted 16 percent of Virachey park, mostly unspoiled hillside forest on its eastern border.