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.
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.
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.