Mother Nature Cambodia

Awarded 2023


För deras orädda och engagerande aktivism för att skydda miljön i Kambodja trots ett mycket begränsat demokratiskt utrymme.

Mother Nature Cambodia är landets främsta ungdomsledda miljöorganisation. Arbetet sker till stor del ute i fält där de samarbetar med lokalinvånare för att bevara såväl naturen som möjligheterna till försörjning, trots att regeringen slår till hårt mot protester. Genom att utbilda och mobilisera unga kambodjaner på lokal och nationell nivå, har de med kreativa metoder, som att producera virala filmer, skapat uppmärksamhet kring – och stoppat – en rad miljöbrott.

En av många framgångsrika kampanjer lyckades sätta stopp för ett bygge av en vattenkraftsdamm med finansiering från Kina. Bygget hotade bland annat ett urfolkssamhälle. De har också lyckats sätta stopp för den korruptionspräglade exporten av sand från de kustnära flodmynningarna i Koh Kong, som förstört lokala ekosystem och fiskevatten.

Mother Nature Cambodia grundades 2012. Kärnan utgörs av ett litet och flexibelt team som mobiliserar motstånd mot destruktiva och korrupta byggprojekt. Regimen har antagit en fientlig inställning till organisationen. Sedan 2015 har elva av Mother Nature Cambodias aktivister fängslats och dussintals blivit gripna. En av organisationens anställda har, liksom som grundaren Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, tvingats lämna landet. Lokalinvånare som har kampanjat tillsammans med Mother Nature Cambodia har också blivit utsatta för repressalier och polisövervakning.

Trots trakasserier och ständiga hot om nya arresteringar har organisationen fortsatt sitt modiga arbete. Mother Nature Cambodia visar att miljöaktivism är intimt sammanlänkad med arbetet för demokrati och mänskliga rättigheter. Genom sin kamp för att skydda naturen och stärka respekten för mänskliga rättigheter i Kambodja har de blivit en källa till hopp och inspiration för framtida generationer i landet.

Denna utmärkelse går inte bara till medarbetarna i Mother Nature Cambodia, utan till alla de människor i Kambodja som stödjer och motiverar oss i vårt arbete.

Sun Ratha, ekonomiansvarig för Mother Nature Cambodia

Biography in English

Mother Nature Cambodia is an environmental rights organisation working at the forefront of environmental preservation, human rights and democracy. Operating under the shadow of Cambodia’s autocratic regime, the organisation aims to preserve the country’s rich natural environment and give voice to communities affected by corrupt and damaging practices. Through its youth-led, innovative campaigns, Mother Nature Cambodia has inspired young people, mobilised communities and stopped destructive development and extractive projects.

Government repression in Cambodia

Following the Cambodian genocide under the murderous Khmer Rouge communist regime in the 1970s, the country’s recent history has been largely defined by the autocratic rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who led the country between 1985 and 2023. One of the world’s longest-ruling prime ministers, Hun Sen systematically eliminated political opposition and independent media.

His time in office was marked by economic growth at the expense of democracy, human rights and the natural environment. Corruption, land grabs and environmental degradation became endemic. In recent years, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, Cambodian authorities stepped up attacks on youth and environmental activists, introducing draconian laws to prosecute and silence them. Journalists, opposition politicians, environmental activists and trade union leaders have been among the dozens of political prisoners behind bars. Meanwhile, the country’s foreign affairs have been largely tied to China, Cambodia’s most trusted ally and financial partner.

After 38 years in power, Hun Sen transferred the premiership to his son, General Hun Manet, in August 2023. It appears unlikely that the new prime minister will alter the course his father has set for the country, even though, some observers have speculated that having been educated in the US and UK, Hun Manet might be more open to democratic reforms and strengthening ties to the West.

The beginnings: campaign against a hydroelectric dam

Seeing the devastating impacts of deforestation, illegal gold mining and land grabs, a group of young activists began organising in late 2012. Recruiting university students and other youths, the group’s first official campaign was to stop the Chinese-led construction of the Chhay Areng hydroelectric dam through non-violent action and the use of social media.

The project was set to flood 10,000 hectares of the Cardamom Mountain forests in the Areng Valley, home to at least 31 endangered animal species. It would have also led to the forced relocation of around 1,600 people, most of them belonging to the Chong Indigenous group. Besides its environmental devastation, the project was rife with corruption: estimated to cost at least 400 million USD, the dam would have produced meagre amounts of electricity with much of the money ending up in the pockets of Cambodia’s elite through kickback payments.

Mobilising the local community and young Cambodians, Mother Nature Cambodia succeeded in bringing public attention to the proposed dam. Through viral videos and increased media pressure, the campaign garnered widespread support from people from all walks of life. This forced the government to abandon the large-scale project, a rare feat in Cambodia for a grassroots campaign. Since then, the Areng Valley has been turned into a well-known eco-tourism destination for both domestic and international travellers.

Stopping sand mining around Koh Kong

Mother Nature Cambodia’s next campaign focused on Koh Kong province, which contains Cambodia’s largest island, situated next to one of the biggest mangrove forests in Southeast Asia. Mangroves are crucial for water quality, biodiversity and protecting coastlines from storms and rising sea levels. As they store high levels of carbon, they are also a very important resource in combatting climate change.

Koh Kong’s mangroves had been endangered by rampant sand mining in the area: large boats were dredging marine sand for export to Singapore and India. Sand is the second most exploited natural resource after water, and it is used in large quantities in the construction industry, among others. The extraction was also destroying the habitat of fish, molluscs and crabs, threatening the survival of Koh Kong’s already vulnerable fishing communities.

Mother Nature Cambodia provided information and support to empower local communities and help them protest the destructive practice. The organisation used innovative ways to highlight the issue. In one video, young activists explained the practice while buried in sand up to their necks. The video got over 4.5 million views and was shared 150,000 times. In terms of campaign tactics, Mother Nature Cambodia's campaign videos depict a problem and call on the government to clarify its role and responsibilities. The videos tend to use humour, have a positive spirit and very often go viral on the country’s social media channels.

While investigating sand mining, the campaign also uncovered large-scale corruption in the sale of Cambodia’s sand. According to government figures, between 2007 and 2015 Cambodia exported 2.8 million tonnes of sand worth 5 million USD to Singapore, which was used by the island country to extend its territory. However, Mother Nature Cambodia found that a United Nations commodity trade statistics database showed a stark contrast: Cambodia had actually sold 72.8 million tonnes of sand worth around 750 million USD to Singapore during that period.

In response to the campaign against sand extraction, the government began a forceful crackdown on Mother Nature Cambodia activists and Koh Kong community members: they were surveilled and threatened by police. In August 2015, three activists were jailed for leading anti-sand-dredging protests and released only in July 2016.

Despite the mounting pressure, the campaign gained traction and forced the government to ban the export of marine sand from Koh Kong in late 2016.

Currently, Mother Nature Cambodia is calling on the Ministry of Environment to declare the island of Koh Kong a national park or protected area so it can be fully preserved. The campaign also aims to increase eco-tourism on the island so that Cambodians and other visitors can enjoy its beauty in its natural state for many generations to come, while also providing a sustainable livelihood to local communities.

Government crackdown

For its highly effective campaigns against the Cambodian government’s disregard for the natural environment and human rights, Mother Nature Cambodia activists have been subject to arrests, intimidation, surveillance and financial pressures. Several staff members had spent more than a year in prison. As of September 2023, six members had allegations of plotting against the government pending in court. The charge carries a prison sentence of up to ten years.

In some cases, the arrests and threats made it impossible for members to continue their activism, and they left the organisation. The government has also tried to co-opt some team members to spread lies about Mother Nature Cambodia. The organisation’s office has been raided twice, and authorities confiscated cameras and other equipment. In 2017, Mother Nature Cambodia was de-listed from the Ministry of Interior’s list of “approved” non-governmental organisations and has been treated as an “illegal entity” ever since. Authorities even created and registered an organisation by the same name to confuse people and delegitimise Mother Nature Cambodia’s activities.

However, the team is continuing to persevere and mount pressure on the government. Their recent campaigns include protesting against buildings on beaches that dump sewage into rivers and the sea, saving a wildlife sanctuary and encouraging eco-tourism in the Areng Valley to provide an alternative means of income to local communities that rely on cutting down trees.

Work on democracy and human rights

Mother Nature Cambodia is clear in its mission that environmental preservation goes hand-in-hand with challenging corruption, which in turns requires human rights and democracy. In many cases, the lack of democratic accountability allows the Cambodian government and big corporations to operate in the shadows and carry on with corrupt and destructive projects. That is why, besides providing environmental training, Mother Nature Cambodia also educates young people on civic action and human rights. The fact that the organisation has continued its operations for more than 10 years despite the oppressive environment is a testament to the strength of the movement and young people’s appetite to fight for a better, more democratic future for Cambodia.

Operating in a repressive context where speaking out is seen as an attack on the government, Mother Nature Cambodia has brought attention to some of Cambodia’s most vulnerable and neglected communities living in areas with the country’s richest natural resources. Through fearless activism, Mother Nature Cambodia has undoubtedly changed the country’s civil society landscape, giving a voice to environmental and human rights concerns through an innovative, youth-led approach that has widened the space for civic engagement and inspired future generations of change-makers.