Cambodia’s largest island, Koh Kong Krao, off its southwest coast, is covered in largely untouched old-growth forest, but recent satellite imagery shows deforestation is spreading.Much of the forest cover loss is in areas tightly controlled by Marine Brigade 2, a navy unit stationed on the island that has historically been accused of facilitating the illicit timber trade.Residents of the island said the navy controls almost every aspect of life there, with provincial officials afraid to intervene or investigate the military’s actions on Koh Kong Krao.Cambodia’s military has long been a key factor in illegal logging across the country, and reporters found evidence of its continued involvement in logging across the Cardamoms. This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network where Gerald Flynn was a fellow.
*Names have been changed to protect sources who said they feared reprisals from the authorities.
KOH KONG, Cambodia — “I think there’s a 30% chance we’ll have trouble with the police,” said Ly Chandaravuth, an environmental activist with the outlawed group Mother Nature Cambodia.
This was in August 2022, when Mother Nature Cambodia was planning a trip to Koh Kong Krao, an island off Cambodia’s southwest coast in Koh Kong province, to raise awareness about the pristine ecosystems there.
But the group’s activism has had consequences, and Chandaravuth’s calculations, near one-in-three odds of being arrested just for visiting the island, were not unfounded.
On June 16, 2021, Chandaravuth, then a law student, was apprehended by police while collecting water samples from the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh. He’d planned to have the samples analyzed to better understand water pollution in the city. Instead, he was charged with plotting against the government, a charge that carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
He was released in November 2021, along with five other Mother Nature Cambodia activists, three of whom had been in prison since September 2020. None were acquitted and all remain under judicial supervision for a three-year period. This means they are unable to leave Cambodia and are required to report to local authorities on a monthly basis.
Notably, they were warned against offending again. Yet this didn’t stop Mother Nature Cambodia from organizing what Chandaravuth described as an educational trip to Koh Kong Krao from Aug. 26-29, 2022.
“We’re just visiting, we have no demands, no message for the government and we have permission from the residents,” he said prior to the trip. “The government wants to keep the development of Koh Kong Krao quiet, so I think it will only look worse if they arrest us.”
The week of their planned trip, Mother Nature Cambodia petitioned the Ministry of Environment to release the findings of a 2016 study the ministry had conducted to assess whether Koh Kong Krao could be designated a marine national park.
In August 2022, Mother Nature Cambodia took 24 people, some activists, others simply interested members of the public, to Koh Kong Krao as part of an educational trip to better understand the conservation value of Cambodia’s largest island. Image supplied by Mother Nature Cambodia.
That same year, global conservation authority the IUCN and its partner-led initiative Mangroves for the Future highlighted the value of ecosystem connectivity to Cambodian officials. This ultimately led to the island of Koh Rong, Cambodia’s second largest, acquiring marine national park status in 2018. But the environment ministry’s study into Koh Kong Krao remains unpublished, if it was ever conducted at all.
The only evidence to suggest a study had been conducted comes from a June 4, 2020, press release issued by the ministry just a day after Mother Nature Cambodia activists had been detained by police and had their bicycles confiscated while attempting to cycle from Phnom Penh to Koh Kong as part of an awareness campaign to save Koh Kong Krao. In its press release, the ministry said Koh Kong Krao would be a marine national park by 2021.
But this never happened, and Neth Pheaktra, spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment, couldn’t be reached to answer why, despite multiple attempts to contact him by phone and written questions sent over the messaging app Telegram.
Despite the lack of protection conferred upon it by the government, Koh Kong Krao, the largest of Cambodia’s 60 islands, is also one of its best preserved.
Spanning some 100 square kilometers (around 39 square miles), almost all of Koh Kong Krao is covered in old-growth forest that sprawls across mountains before giving way to waterfalls that connect to mangroves via creeks and estuaries, forming contiguous ecosystems with the seagrass meadows and coral reefs that fringe parts of the island.
Such a vast, verdant island untouched by large-scale investments makes Koh Kong Krao stand out from its peers off the coast of the Cardamom Mountains, many of which have been bought up by the Cambodian elite and seen their ecosystems degraded as a result.
The largest island in Cambodia, Koh Kong Krao is home to just one small village who remain locked in a dispute with the Marine Brigade 2, the navy unit stationed on the island. Residents said that the marines seek to control almost every aspect of life on Koh Kong Krao, but they also accused the soldiers of running illegal logging operations from the island. Image by Gerald Flynn/Mongabay.
Rumors of a tycoon typhoon on the horizon
While the government remains largely silent on the status of Koh Kong Krao, so too did the authorities during Mother Nature Cambodia’s trip to the island. Upon returning, Chandaravuth said that when he and the 24 people — some activists, others simply interested members of the public — arrived in Koh Kong province, police took photos of them “in case anyone goes missing.”
Other than this, he said, soldiers stationed on Koh Kong Krao watched the group for several hours, but there was minimal interference.
“We stayed with the fishing community in Alatang village, on the southeast of the island,” Chandaravuth said, adding that the community had agreed to host the activists and their guests beforehand. “It’s beautiful there, you can see many different species of fish, which provide for the community — and they want tourism to become a new income source, so there’s lots of options for trekking, there are waterfalls and parts of the jungle are so thick, there’s no sunlight inside. Big islands like this, they’re rare.”
Rare or not, the specter of unconfirmed rumors that the island has been sold to Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) senator and tycoon Ly Yong Phat, a Thai-Cambodian national, hangs heavy over Koh Kong Krao.
Ly Yong Phat was appointed by Prime Minister Hun Sen to develop the province of Koh Kong in 2000, and the prospect of a tycoon with a long record of forced evictions, illegal logging and environmental vandalism in Koh Kong — all in the name of economic development — has since made the island a target for Mother Nature Cambodia’s activism.
The government’s alleged decision to hand over Koh Kong Krao to Ly Yong Phat, who last year was appointed personal adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, appears to date back to 2014. Documents seen by Mongabay suggest that three companies, including Ly Yong Phat’s Koh Kong SEZ, » …