In Cambodia’s Northern Prey Lang forest, one of the last remaining evergreen swaths in Southeast Asia, the modern era is breaking in—but not in a destructive way. The Kuy indigenous community, which lives in the bordering village of Phneak Rolerk, is using technology to protect its traditions and ancestral land.
One of the largest ethnic groups in Cambodia, the Kuy live in harmony with Prey Lang. For the past two generations, the community has lived self-sufficiently from the forest’s riches: food, resin, medicine, rattan, vines, and other natural gifts. Yet Cambodia is suffering the world’s fastest acceleration of forest loss, spurred by rampant logging and exacerbated by climate change. The Prey Lang is no exception. If it vanishes, so will the Kuy’s way of life.
Driven by self-preservation, the community created the Prey Lang Community Network a decade ago, a grassroots movement to protect the forest. Patrols of 10 to 40 people wander through Prey Lang each month, walking and camping silently for days on end and successfully catching illegal loggers. They don’t have authority to arrest anyone, however, so all they can do is ask loggers to not return. Beyond the Kuy’s livelihood, the forest is also home to the spirits the Kuy worship and that protect the community. “If the forest dies, we die,” they say.
In concert with their off-line patrols, the Kuy are now turning to technology to track the loss of their forest, and thus the risk to their spiritual world. With the Prey Lang app, the network is building the first database on deforestation and climate change in Cambodia.
“When we go to Prey Lang, the first thing I do is turn on my phone’s GPS tracker,” says Keuth Loun, 23. “That way, every time I take a picture, I know its exact location.” The son of a local farmer, Keuth never leaves his smartphone at home. He taps the Prey Lang app to post his latest discoveries on Facebook, including new proof of illegal logging.
As he types away, Keuth says he feels like he achieves a small victory with every post. “We want to let countries see what is happening to our forest, and we would like them to help us protect it,” he adds. “If people see what is going on with their own eyes, they will take an interest. This is not only addressed to foreigners—I also want to let other Cambodians know how much of the Prey Lang forest is still standing.”
Their tireless efforts on foot patrols and recent data collection helped earn the community the United Nations’ Equator Prize in late 2015 for its action to protect Prey Lang.
The forest’s remoteness and pristine environment, while a benefit to the Kuy, can make it difficult to operate the network. Smartphones are sensitive to outdoor conditions and have limited battery life; the data network coverage is often sporadic, says Christoph Lüthy, who works for the Cambodian startup Web Essentials and was part of the team that developed the Prey Lang app.
“We knew that the app had to work without any data network coverage,” he says. So the team designed the app to store data locally on the device. Once the app connects to a 3G data network or Wi-Fi connection, the app begins synchronizing with a cloud-based database to store the information online. “The data manager can immediately see what is going on in the forests,” Christoph explains.
He says he believes that technology can empower people to defend their rights. “The technology part of the app is just a part of the puzzle,” he adds. The most challenging component, he says, “is the bringing together of technical possibilities and limitations, human capabilities, and also needs and wishes.” In the future, Christoph says he hopes the Prey Lang app can be adapted for communities facing similar problems.
But while technology gives more tools to grassroots activists to protect Prey Lang, it hasn’t brought similar protections to the people themselves. In recent years, local authorities have responded to the growing activism from Phneak Rolerk villagers by burning down houses and evicting or arresting activists. In 2012, Wutty Chut, a prominent environmentalist, was killed by the military police as he investigated illegal logging. Wutty was much involved in the protection of Prey Lang and his death is on everyone’s mind. His spirit is floating around the Kuy community, which is still paying tribute to his courage.
“If we do not take care of the forest, who will?” they ask.