After Arrests, Environment NGO Defends Tactics

When Sam Samnang’s son decided to join the ranks of environmental NGO Mother Nature, she knew he was in for trouble.

“I always worried for my son’s safety when he worked for Mother Nature because I thought he could be arrested any day,” Ms. Samnang said Tuesday.

“The authorities are not happy with this organization because they are trying to prevent people from making money from natural resources.”

Ms. Samnang’s worries, it turned out, were well founded.

Her son, Try Sovikea, 25, was arrested last week along with two other Mother Nature activists—Sun Mala, 22, and Sim Samnang, 29—for their efforts to stop a pair of sand dredging companies from operating in the Andoung Toek estuary in Koh Kong province.

The activists and local fishermen accuse the companies of dredging deeper and in a larger area than their licenses allow, destroying the environment and locals’ livelihoods in the process.

Following their August 17 arrest, the provincial court charged the three activists with threatening to destroy property after they boarded a dredging barge operated by Direct Access, one of the companies operating in the estuary in Botum Sakor district, and allegedly told workers that they would burn the vessel if they did not stop dredging.

If found guilty, they face up to two years in prison.

The arrests of the activists were just the latest chapter in Mother Nature’s aggressive series of campaigns to protect the environment. Since its founding in 2012, the NGO has primarily focused on stopping a proposed hydropower dam project in Koh Kong’s Areng Valley.

In February, the government arrested and deported Spanish national Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, Mother Nature’s charismatic co-founder, after refusing to renew his visa because he and fellow activists briefly blocked a government convoy from reaching the site of the dam last year.

In an interview last week, Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson, who requested that his current location not be revealed, admitted that Mother Nature’s tactics were more direct than those employed by most NGOs in Cambodia.

“If you look at what’s being done, such as reports, workshops, working with the government—what many NGOS have been doing—and if you look at what they’ve really achieved, you have to ask if these things really work,” he said. “They don’t work.”

He said the jailed activists were well aware that their campaign against the two companies would draw the ire of the government, and likely lead to their arrests.

“We decided we weren’t going to back down,” he said. “There are benefits from the arrests but none from backing down.”

Indeed, the arrests have caused a firestorm of support for the NGO on social media and received wide coverage in local media.

And Mother Nature’s strategy in Koh Kong seems to have paid off. Direct Access and Rainbow International, the other company dredging the Andoung Toek estuary, stopped mining sand there about two weeks ago.

Direct Access’ license has now expired and the Mines and Energy Ministry said in an email Tuesday that it had not yet been renewed.

Tit Kun, 41, a fisherman in Botum Sakor district’s Andoung Toek commune, said Tuesday that dredging barges had now moved from the Andoung Toek estuary to the nearby Prek Kantout estuary, where Rainbow International has a license to operate.

Despite the small victory, Tha Sochea, 23, the wife of Mr. Samnang, one of the jailed activists, said she would continue to join the ongoing demonstrations in Koh Kong’s Khemara Phoumint City calling for her husband and his colleagues to be released.

“I wish to appeal to anyone who loves nature to stand up and join with us to demand the release of my husband and the two activists from the prison,” she said during a break in Tuesday’s protest.

Deputy provincial governor Sun Dara said he still believed the arrests were justified.

“I think the arrests of the three was right because they created many problems in Koh Kong province,” he said.

Regardless of whether the activists are convicted, Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson said in an email Tuesday that their determination remained unshaken.

“[The] activists are in jail as they decided that playing the role as ‘prisoners of conscience’ is what is needed right now, surely Cambodian society will reward them for their sacrifice in the not too distant future.”

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