Story | 10 Sep, 2021

Community-level responses to ‘forest violence’ in Cambodia

Excerpt from the special issue of the CEESP publication Policy Matters, focusing on the stories and voices of environmental defenders. Article by Hollie Grant and Philippe Le Billon*

Community Forestry is an important way to protect biodiversity and traditional rural livelihoods. Forest defenders, however, face multiple forms of violence from logging and agricultural interests. This excerpt examines the ways through which Community Forestry in Cambodia has faced these challenges, where demand for forestland in the past three decades has intensified forest-related conflicts.  

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A soldier joins a patrol in the Monks’ Community Forest, Oddar Meanchey (2015). PHOTO: HOLLIE GRANT

Many of these conflicts involve direct violence between and within interest groups including local villagers, organised logging groups, land-seeking migrants and state officials, such as police and soldiers. While such violence seeks to intimidate and prevent Community Forestry participants from pursuing their forest-protection activities, many rural Cambodians continue to participate in community-based forest management activities despite significant threats to their personal safety and limited results in achieving forest protection. This chapter seeks to explain in part why grassroots mobilisation against deforestation continues despite much violence and reduced support from international donors.

This article is an excerpt from the special issue of the CEESP publication Policy Mattersfocusing on the stories and voices of environmental defenders.


Community-based forest protection in Cambodia

Community-based forest management (CBFM) projects support communities to take a central role in managing their local forests with the aim of improving sustainable forest management practices for conservation of locally and globally valued ecosystems, to support forest-dependent livelihoods for their economic and cultural value, and to promote political development through participation in democratic processes (Menzies, 2007). Although organisational structures vary between different CBFM projects, the approach implies the decentralisation or delegation of forest management responsibilities and, to some extent, governance (Berkes, 2007).

It is implied, and sometimes a formalised legal requirement, that with increased rights over local resources, communities will exclude illegitimate forest users and prevent illicit extraction of forest resources, thereby assuming the responsibility of law enforcement at the local level. In this framework CBFM participants are not passive recipient beneficiaries of integrated development and conservation projects but are tutored to become ‘responsibilised’ (Cruikshank, 1999; Li, 2007) members of an environmental community of care, enacting the behaviours they have been taught to value (Agrawal, 2005; Sundar, 2001).

However, the practices that CBFM aims to reduce (deforestation and illicit extraction of forest resources) are frequently associated with physical violence and threats thereof, as illicit forest users attempt to take forest resources by force and scare environmental defenders into silence (Forst, 2016; Franck & Hansen, 2014; Global Witness, 2014; 2015a; 2016a; 2017; Gonclaves et al., 2012). Thus, in seeking to reduce these practices, some participants in community-based forest management experience physical violence, threats and intimidation during conflicts over forest use (hereafter, ‘forest-related violence’).23

Unlike community forests in many other countries, Cambodia’s CFs don’t have any community-managed commercial logging enterprises yet (RGC, 2010).24 Rather, they are managed for subsistence use and conservation of biodiversity and wildlife habitats (referred to by the Forestry Administration as ‘Protection Forests’). To improve the financial motivation for villagers to participate in CF protection, communities are encouraged to pursue alternative ways to generate income from the forest such as establishing eco-tourism projects or non-timber forest product (NTFP) enterprises (honey, rattan, and resin processing are common pursuits) (Sunderlin, 2006).

The government also plans to generate income for communities and the FA through three forest carbon credit projects (RGC, 2010). These are based on the CF model – multiple CFs in a landscape are ‘bundled’ and counted as one REDD+ project even if the forest is not contiguous (Bradley, 2011). The day-to-day management remains largely the same as other CFs but there is additional technical assistance for measuring carbon emissions and avoided emissions.

Although Cambodia was one of the first countries in SEA to initiate a REDD+ project and the national framework was promoted as a promising model for sustainable forest management elsewhere in Southeast Asia (Broadhead & Izquierdo, 2010; Poffenberger et al., 2009), its pilot project in Oddar Meanchey has been abandoned by REDD+ donors (Lang, 2014) and has reverted back to regular CF operations due to the FA’s inability to agree the terms with a carbon credit buyer in 2014 (Khoun, 2014). A second form of CBFM in Cambodia is Community Protection Areas (CPAs). In terms of organisational structure at the community level, purpose, and daily management, CPAs mirror CFs.

However, CPAs are established in forests that are already designated as Protected Areas, such as a National Park, Wildlife Sanctuary or Biosphere Reserve (Open Development Cambodia, 2016). These national conservation zones are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Environment (MoE) rather than the Forestry Administration, a department in Ministry of Fisheries and Forestry (MAFF), although this has little impact at the community level – both are equally bureaucratic and inefficient at processing applications despite NGO attempts to move the process forward (San, 2006). Due to the similarity of CPAs to CFs and because they are much fewer in number (approximately twenty eight have been granted [San, 2006]), there is little literature specifically on CPAs as distinct from CFs or the larger Protected Areas in which they are located. Even implementing NGOs tend to conversationally refer to CPAs under the same umbrella term of ‘CF.’

Overall, CFs and CPAs have been effective in reducing deforestation, though less so than protected areas (under the Ministry of Environment) or protected forests (under the Forestry Department), at least compared to non-conserved forests (Ota et al., 2020).

Participation motives and processes

Two main studies have previously examined factors influencing participation in Community Forestry within Cambodia. Pasgaard and Chea (2013) suggest that it is easier for “better-off households” to find time to engage in CF activities and access the information provided by NGOs. Looking at Cambodia’s most well-known case, the self-organised forest protection community scheme around Prey Lang forest, Turreira- Garcia et al. (2018) find from a survey that active forest monitors represent a minority of villagers (22%), and mostly consist of motivated forest-users, but with no particular ethnicity, gender, or length of residence in the area. Here, we seek to complement these findings through a focus on how community forest patrollers perceive themselves in relation to violence and forest protection activities.

To this end, we deploy the concept of ‘subjectivity’ and the ways in which three processes can help understand the generative and more-than-disciplinary effects of violence, namely: the interpellation of specific subject positions through expressions of power, the internalisation and interpretation of embodied expressions of power, and the subsequent performance and performativity of emergent subjectivities. By exploring the construction of subject positions after experiencing violence and the potential for those emergent subjects to act or act differently, such a study of subjectivity can help trace how the repressive and generative powers of violence, among other forms of power, influence the behaviours of participants in CBFM projects. The study draws from a survey and fieldworks observation and interviews by the first author.

Performing environmental subjectivities through forest patrols

Forest patrols are the most important performative act for CF participants, as well as the most dangerous. Even when apprehending illicit forest users, patrollers are often unable to make arrests due to the lack of transportation out of remote forest locations and unwillingness to (possibly illegally) arm themselves with weapons equivalent to those of loggers. At most, they can conduct a citizen’s arrest and call local authorities, and may be able to confiscate the wood cutting and logging equipment. Forest patrols, which are generally self-funded by participants (e.g. food and gas), thus appear to have limited effectiveness at reducing deforestation when not supported by effective law enforcement systems.

Patrols, for many CF participants interviewed, demonstrate that they are not afraid of powerful political and economic elites and are willing to stand up for their environmental rights. One interviewee noted, “When we patrol, everyone who sees us knows we are protesting illegal deforestation. We want the loggers to see us patrolling so they know we are not afraid of them”.25 Although direct violence does affect how CF practices are conducted, with for example prior announcement to avoid the risk of chance encounter with armed loggers, patrolling enables CF members to express their refusal to bow to what is interpreted as illegitimate power. Participation in CF becomes a performance of their desire to uphold Cambodian laws and individual human rights in contrast to the prevailing political regime. As another interviewee noted,

I know we have to keep patrolling the forest, because the government will not protect it so it is our responsibility to do it. We have to show the government that we are better than them. We do our duty honestly even when the police do not.26

This sense of duty and adherence to rules – as formally defined by CF legislation and local CF bylaws drafted by CF members, and informally interpreted as social norms by patrol participants and other community members – guides the performance of CF activities and is demonstrated, for example, through patrol groups taking formal photos of themselves during patrols to document that the patrol group is upholding its responsibility to look after the forest as prescribed in CF guidelines and in spite of the dangers posed by illicit forest users. Similarly, patrols often start by driving their motorbikes through a village in convoy. This signals the patrol’s resolve to onlookers, while reducing the risk of violence suffered as a result of a chance encounter with armed loggers. Participants intend their actions to be seen, unlike the covert forms of ‘everyday resistance’ described by Scott (1985).

An important audience for CF performances is the international conservation and development community, which - despite having so significantly shaped the development of CFs in Cambodia - has been withdrawing support for CFs in some provinces due to insufficient forest conservation outcomes (Radio Free Asia, 2015). Many interviewees hope that by continuing to practice CF activities as previously encouraged by NGOs and simultaneously exposing the constraints on their success due to lack of political support, donors will come to recognise these efforts and constraints, and thereby put more pressure on the state to effectively reduce illegal logging and deforestation.

The performativity of forest patrols suggests that participation in CF is part of the broader struggle for political rights, of which environmental rights are a part (Agyeman et al., 2016). This form of collective action resonates with O’Brien’s concept of ‘rightful resistance’ in which “a partly institutionalised form of contention… works largely within (yet at the edges of) an existing opportunity structure” (1996). CF provides such a structure, including ‘legitimate’ access to government officials; as expressed by one of the interviewees, “[w]e talk with the authorities legitimately because we have the right according to the CF agreement”.

In this respect, CF may be considered as a “conservative” form of collective action (Simpson 2014), in that it does not seek regime change, or even can’t be interpreted as a ‘depoliticising’ process (Li, 2007), in that forests and forest users are treated as components of a technical problem. Yet, CF is one of the few options available in an illiberal political regime. It provides an arena for the performance of subjectivities and identities, and for the performative act of expressing opposition to those who try to disperse, silence, and isolate them through various forms of violence, including direct forest-related violence, structural violence, symbolic violence and the ‘slow’ violence (Nixon, 2011) of environmental destruction. In this, participation in CF unlocks ways of being political – of contesting oppressive structures – while acting within sanctioned institutions.

Politicised violence and rights consciousness

Experiences of direct forest-violence not only contribute to draw attention to structural violence, but also help to illuminate symbolic violence of social norms facilitating direct and structural violence, and hold members of their community in positions of subjection to elites. In response, CF participants frequently re-purpose the language of rights as a tool to challenge the symbolic violence of hierarchical Cambodian society that naturalises direct and structural violence against politically and economically marginalised communities. As an interviewee noted:

Village people are easily scared when the Village Chief tells them ‘if you join CF, you will have to leave the village and eat rice with the monks.’ This is because they do not know their rights. They do not understand that they have the right to protect the forest and they do not have to obey the Village Chief. They do not understand that they can vote to get a new chief and that he or she is accountable to the villagers.27

The perceived choice between colluding in systems of oppression and opposing them also revolved around the language of rights, including universal human rights, the National Constitution, and rights granted by CF Agreements, that delegitimise the Cambodian ‘system’:

In Cambodia, we have a system – some people are rich and so they have more power, some people are poor so they do not have so much power. They say this is the Khmer tradition but now I understand that it does not matter if a person is rich or not, we all have rights. We have the right to live in peace and we have the right to protect our forest. [The NGO] gives us training on human rights and the Cambodian constitution. The Constitution says that we have the right to protect our forest. The CF Agreement says we have the right to protect our forest. Big Men do not have more rights than me. We are equal and so I join CF to show other poor people that we have rights.28

Political awareness and new subjectivities thus emerge from community forest protection and the violent responses that often ensue. These, however, rarely translated into effec-
tive means of reducing the impunity of ‘forest destroyers’, largely because of the broader political authoritarianism and patronage relations at play in Cambodia. Attempts to enforce existing laws in order to punish and deter forest-related violence thus appear to be wholly unsuccessful. During fieldwork for this study, no cases were found in which those responsible for forest-related violence against CBFM participants or NGO employees had been arrested, let alone convicted, even in cases where the identity of the perpetrator was known. This mirrors the national trend as even cases that have been prominent in Cambodian and international media have not been fully investigated or have been closed prematurely (Amnesty International, 2017c; Cox & Ok, 2012; Lambrick & de Smet, 2015).

Examples from interview data of how law enforcement authorities fail to act on reports of forest-related violence are dishearteningly common and repetitive despite the brevity of each one: “we reported them to the police but they did not investigate”; “I reported him to the Village Chief but he did not report to the police or give any punishment”; “the police and the Village Chief came to see the remains [of an arson attack on a house] but up to now, they have not made any arrests”.29 Explanations for this repeatedly point to the authority figure to which the report was made being engaged in illegal logging networks and associated violence or being the political client of those who are.

The precise details of these networks remain murky – a default given the illegal nature of their activities, and the illicit and extra-legal arrangements that are made (Springer, 2017). Yet, a consistent picture emerges from interviewees’ claims and observations of village- level social dynamics indicating that law enforcement authorities do not pursue reports of forest-related violence because of influence from political and institutional patrons.

The overarching reason that existing laws are not effective in punishing forest-related violence is that the illicit forest users most likely to use violence – organised logging groups, the military, and clientelistic local loggers and migrants – are those most able to use personalised systems of power to circumvent the legal-rational disciplinary mechanisms of the justice system. These failures by law enforcement authorities in turn structure the behaviour of Cambodian citizens and shape how they interact with the justice system to defend their rights and respond to direct violence.

Specifically, it makes many CBFM participants less likely to ask law enforcement authorities to uphold their rights and contributes to an attitude of resignation to systemic injustice while still motivating grass-roots efforts to prevent deforestation, including through the hiring of trusted soldiers – often family relatives – to accompany CF members during their patrols. Regardless of the short-term effectiveness of the solution, militarising forest patrols is not a sustainable solution to reducing violence in the forests. To do so is treating the symptom of the problem (direct violence) rather than the causes (structural violence and elites’ impunity to the law) (Duffy et al., 2015; Lunstrum, 2014). It displaces forest-related violence in time or space rather than eliminating it. Rather, the situation of CF requires a deeper transformation of power relations between communities, NGOs, and authorities (Grant & Le Billon, 2020), clearly a difficult challenge in Cambodia.

* Hollie Grant is Project Leader at the Boston Consulting Group. Philippe Le Billon is professor at the Department of Geography and School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia. E-mail