Death of a Forester

Wutty traveled with his camera, recording illegal logging. Will Baxter

Hours before Chut Wutty was gunned down, I asked him: "Are you happy?" The Cambodian forestry activist paused, visibly unsure how to answer as he steered his Toyota Land Cruiser along the rough forest road. He finally swallowed and replied: "I like to accomplish things. But I live a hard life." He blinked and turned away from me. A rock on the road shook the vehicle. The stereo belted out an old top-40 hit, the Scorpions' 1990 power ballad "Wind of Change." Abashed, I said nothing. I was a mere tourist in Wutty's perilous world.

It wasn't just an off-the-cuff question. My colleague Phorn Bopha and I were traveling with the 45-year-old Wutty in the Cardamom Mountains, working on a story for the English-language Cambodia Daily about his efforts to save one of the last bulwarks of biodiversity in Southeast Asia. On April 26, 2012, he was shot dead within a few feet of us. He died doing what he both loved and hated: waging an often lonely battle against the pillagers who have destroyed 6,200 square kilometers of Cambodian forest in the past two decades and turned unspoiled valleys into barren craters.

Wutty's death made him a grim statistic in a global struggle—one of more than 700 environmental defenders worldwide who have been killed in the past decade protecting ancestral lands and endangered trees from domestic and international developers. And his country's wilderness areas have been hit particularly hard by the loggers. According to recent rankings from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Cambodia's rate of deforestation is the world's third highest, behind only Nigeria and Vietnam. Much of that timber is harvested in supposedly protected areas and shipped to China, the No. 1 importer of illegally sourced wood, buying $3.7 billion in pillaged timber in 2008 alone, according to the British think tank Chatham House.

During our few days in the rainforest with Wutty, and in the weeks before his death, I came to know him as a reclusive, meticulous and compassionate man. I witnessed his outrage at how Cambodia's woodlands are falling victim to two-faced politicians, ruthless businessmen, lethargic NGOs, and uniformed thugs. I saw the way his own hunger for justice inspired villagers to stand up. His dedication was total. Some nights he would sleep in a hammock in the forest, within range of armed henchmen paid by illegal loggers, his global positioning system in his pocket and his camera at hand, plotting nonviolent counterattacks on behalf of voiceless communities. "It's in my character to do dangerous jobs," he said in a 2001 interview. "If I don't do these things, life won't be important to me."

A carpenter's son and onetime soldier, Wutty spent years working for international environmental groups before going solo. He was frustrated by their failure to do more to halt an illicit timber trade that robs Cambodia's villagers while profiting the country's rich and powerful and their Chinese partners. Hardly sleeping, living as often as not amid the trees, he created an organization of his own, the Natural Resource Protection Group, and he found allies among the ordinary Cambodians who depend on the economic and spiritual gifts of the forest for their livelihoods. "People loved him," recalls Peter Swift, an American-born environmental activist and fellow community organizer in Prey Long, Indochina's largest lowland evergreen forest.

Prey Long was Wutty's No. 1 cause. Indigenous communities have been tapping the forest's resin trees for hundreds of years, supporting themselves on the income from selling the sap—but loggers had come to fell the irreplaceable trees, and no one was stopping them. "The authorities don't enforce the law, so the people have to enforce the law," Wutty told me early this year, ahead of a march he organized into Prey Long. Under his direction, hundreds of villagers went patrolling for rogue loggers, seizing their illegally cut timber, and burning it. Destroying black-market timber is dangerous work. From the armed men who patrol logging sites to the global syndicates grubbing profits off rich Cambodian rosewood, Wutty defied many threats as he made careful notes and sketches of what his environmental foot soldiers had uncovered. Then he went public with his findings, calling out corrupt players and making heavyweight enemies.

He dreamed of launching an eco-tourism business in the Cardamoms, a 14,354-square-kilometer range containing at least 450 species of birds and 50 species of endangered animals, including the clouded leopard and the Siamese crocodile. Back in 2001 he helped set up the Central Cardamom Protected Forest, a 4,020-square-kilometer sanctuary overseen by the Cambodian government and the Virginia-based environmentalist group Conservation International. Still, the zone remains under constant threat from poachers, developers, and loggers who covet its old-growth timber reserves. It is estimated that forest cover in some parts of the Cardamom range will be reduced to 50 percent in coming years. "The Cardamoms will experience a death by a thousand cuts," says Andrew McDonald, an American botanist and friend of Wutty's who has spent the past two decades inventorying Cambodia's forests. "When you cut the forest, it's like an oil well—you won't get that forest back."

The biggest impact is likely to come from four Chinese-funded hydropower projects, where thousands of trees will be removed legally in creating reservoirs. Wutty was convinced that rangers in the Central Cardamom Protected Forest were going rogue and accepting bribes to let loggers clandestinely fell endangered timber such as rosewood, haul it to the reservoir sites, and then ship it out again as legitimately harvested. An elegant, crimson-streaked wood used in fancy furniture and guitars, Cambodian rosewood can bring $24,000 per tree and has been logged nearly to extinction.

Late last year, Wutty brought in journalists to expose the timber-laundering operation. The Phnom Penh Post printed first-hand accounts of collusion, photos of a "bribe book," and testimony from former Conservation International staff. Conservation International's Asia-Pacific vice president, David Emmett, denied any knowledge of corruption among rangers funded by the group but said it was "almost impossible" to halt the transport of illegal timber into designated clearing areas. Marcus Hardtke, an independent environmental expert and friend of Wutty's who has lived in Cambodia since 1998, calls that viewpoint "the ultimate declaration of moral bankruptcy."

Nevertheless, the timber pirates do have some very powerful friends. When the Cambodian government imposed a moratorium on logging concessions in 2002, clear-cutting continued under the guise of large-scale agricultural concessions to private interests with blood ties or political links to the ruling Cambodian People's Party. In 2010 and 2011, government grants of rubber, mining, and acacia concessions in natural parks and protected forests soared, consuming more of Cambodia's formerly lush landscape. Many of these ventures operate under state protection, with military police acting with impunity as virtual mercenary armies.

On May 16, government security forces killed a 14-year-old girl during a raid on villagers locked in a land dispute in Kratie province. "What we are seeing in Cambodia is a fully-fledged mafia state," says Simon Taylor, founding director of Global Witness. The U.K.-based environmental watchdog group, which was effectively expelled from Cambodia in 2005 after disclosing high-level timber-related corruption, has called the country's logging network "a kleptocratic elite." Wutty was Cambodia's seventh environmental worker to be killed since 2001. In a particularly grisly 2009 case, an anti-logging leader was hacked to death as he slept. "It's kind of like war," says Hardtke.

"I don't know how much longer I'll be here," Wutty told me before our trip into the Cardamoms. He was talking about his past run-ins with military police unhappy with his illegal-logging investigations. But we encountered nothing too menacing until our third day out, when Wutty decided to make one last stop at a ramshackle settlement off a red-dirt road. From the start, something about the spot seemed unsettling. It was filled with makeshift dwellings, industrial tools, and a loose scattering of men, women, and children. Military hammocks hung from metal poles. "You are too slow," Wutty told us as we walked toward a clearing to gather evidence. He showed rare agitation as he told us we were in a military-controlled area where a creeper known as yellow vine, a traditional remedy for stomach ailments, was being harvested. McDonald says the vine is sought after because it contains berberine, a chemical compound akin to ecstasy.

Wutty hurried us along until we came across hundreds of four-foot lengths of yellow vine stacked like cordwood near a truck. While he took evidentiary photos, I followed my Khmer colleague. Bopha hoped to interview some men standing nearby, but they wouldn't even name their employer, so we headed back toward to the Land Cruiser. Wutty was already there. A man in beige fatigues stood blocking the driver's-side door of the Land Cruiser and refusing to let us leave until his superiors arrived. Soon a pair of motorbikes rolled up carrying two military police officers and a soldier wearing a hospital mask. He smelled of alcohol. All three had AK-47s.

Led by the man with the mask, the three argued with Wutty, and he yelled back. They demanded our cameras. We refused at first, but finally handed over two of them, holding back Wutty's Canon. As Wutty tried again to get into the car, there was a struggle, and his shirt buttons flew off, exposing the tiger tattoo on his chest. After more yelling and what seemed to be some sort of compromise, the three of us got into the car and Wutty turned the key. No ignition.

We all got out to give the car a push, and vehement yelling resumed between Wutty and the men. Wutty now directed me to hand over the last camera, his own. Everyone was on edge. One of the officers said to Wutty: "We are both slaves, we are both the same. Don't be so arrogant." Wutty was having none of it. "I'm a slave to who?" he hurled back. He went to lift the car's hood, and I stood beside him. He told me to hold three wires together while he started the engine. Feigning calm, I did so, and the engine growled.

One of the men reached into the car and turned off the key. Wutty turned it on again. The man repeated his action. Finally he left the car alone, and Wutty closed his door. "Let's go, let's go, let's go," he hammered at us. I lowered the hood and ran to the passenger door. From the corner of my eye, I saw one of the military policemen blocking the car. Then shots exploded.

I fled toward the forest and screamed for Bopha to follow me. Almost immediately she told me we had to go back. We'd die in the forest, she said. As we emerged from the underbrush, we saw one of the military police officers lying motionless on the ground in front of the car. Bopha, rushing ahead, told me Wutty had been hit. Her words barely registered. The driver's-side door was open. Wutty sat slumped, his head tilted against the headrest. His hat lay on the red dirt road next to the car. His left knee had a small, round wound, slightly bloody. "He's going to be OK," I told Bopha. "He's only been shot in the knee."

"No," she said. "He's been hit in the stomach, too." Someone had already snatched the gold chain from his neck. Staring at his body, not knowing dead from alive, I grabbed my emergency epinephrine pen and stabbed it into his left thigh, hoping for a sign of life. He didn't flinch. I pressed my hand against his chest to feel for his heartbeat. Nothing. Cold. I heard my own heavy breaths and felt the punch of my heart against my chest. He was dead.

The two remaining officers dragged their dead friend's body to a nearby dwelling and then began searching in and around the car, making cellphone calls, whispering and huddling. They checked the woods where we had darted for cover. When they returned, one asked Bopha: "Where's the gun, where did you put the gun?" We knew nothing about any gun, and we feared a frame-up. Time passed, and two more soldiers arrived. "Just kill them both," Bopha heard one of them say. They talked about whether to move the car into the forest, out of sight. "They are going to rape us and kill us," Bopha said. "I am going to faint." Fear crippled me too. "Tell me if you hear them say it again, and we'll run," I finally said. "They'll shoot us in the back," she argued. "We'll die running," I told her. She nodded.

For the next hour, the soldiers huddled and whispered, walked about, greeted more men arriving on motorcycles. "The provincial police are coming," Bopha heard them say, and I allowed myself to think we might live. A newly arrived group of officers finally began taking our statements. We told them we had missed the exact moment of the shooting, that we hadn't seen who fired at whom. It was the truth.

We waited for Kevin Doyle, the Daily's editor-in-chief, to make the long drive from Phnom Penh and pick us up. Hours passed, and I thought back to the last happy moments of Wutty's life: the friendly guesthouse where we'd stayed the night before; the exotic tree from which he'd plucked a round, sour fruit for us to taste; the way he and Bopha had sung romantic Khmer songs as we watched the setting sun from the hood of his car, each melodic word wafting into the shady canopies of green.

A car pulled up and three men who'd heard about the shooting got out. "He was a legend," one of them said in English.

In the days and weeks afterward, I learned more details about the case. The site where Wutty died was managed by the Cambodian-owned Timbergreen Co., which was licensed by the government to remove logs for the construction of a Chinese hydropower reservoir. The police who had confronted us were members of a group of 20 security men employed by Timbergreen. The man in beige fatigues who first stopped us was Ran Boroth, a 27-year-old Timbergreen security guard. The dead military-police officer was identified as In Rattana, 32. He had two bullet wounds, one to his stomach and the other to his chest. They were black from the powder burns of a close-range shooting.

The government's version of the killing mutated several times. One absurd scenario claimed that Rattana shot Wutty and immediately turned his weapon on himself, in an apparent act of remorse. A supercommittee charged by Prime Minister Hun Sen later concluded that Wutty was killed by Rattana, but that the officer was killed when Boroth wrested the rifle from his grip and accidentally discharged it twice. On May 4, Boroth was charged with accidental homicide. The case has been shrouded in secrecy, and a trial has not yet begun.

Wutty left a wife and three children. My last sight of him was his body laid out on a tarp, his GPS by his side and his pants leg red with blood. The tiger tattooed on his chest peered out from his torn-open shirt. Two weeks after his death, hundreds of villagers and activists traveled for hours along the rocky road to the clearing where Wutty was killed. The procession included a 10-foot effigy of him made of tree branches, his signature beige forest hat atop a paper printout of his face. Mourners carried signs declaring, "I am Chut Wutty." But there was only one Chut Wutty. Those who knew and loved him best can only hope his spirit will somehow survive. "Maybe the day he died a tiger was born in the forest," said Hardtke.