“There are two reason why I came," said Sokhoern as he held up two fingers. "One, I love trees. Two, I love the environment.” With a checkered kroma secured around his neck and sweat glistening on his brow, 70-year-old Sokhoern, planted trees with more vigor than others half his age.
Hailing from Phnom Penh, Sokhoern had traveled with us (Peace Bridges Organization) to join the tree planting event in Kbal Khlaa community forest last year. He was captivated by Prey Lang and felt compelled to return. This year, when he heard we would return to plant in another part of the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary, he brought along his wife, Hourn. Hourn is 65 years old.
“Yeah, I’m the same,” said Hourn, who stood by his side. “When I see the trees, I love them. They’re so big! When I see that they’ve been cut down I’m so sad.”
This year, we planted trees in a large field near Chumam village, Sandan district, that had been cleared for a cassava plantation. Local authorities had declared the plantation to be illegal and allowed us to convert it back to forest. Over 230 volunteers, young and old, Christian and Buddhist, from cities and nearby communities, and around 40 forest rangers and officials scampered over fallen trees and waded through shoulder-high cassava plants carrying young saplings. These saplings were species of rosewood trees—trees that are highly trafficked because of their high price on the black market.
When asked how he dealt with the challenges of camping in the forest and the bumpy tractor ride, he replied, “Well, difficulties like this, I’ve done it before. Within my heart I feel joyful, motivated, and enthusiastic, so I forget to feel exhausted. I’m only happy!” A big grin spread across his face. “I’m just happy to be here.”
“I’m the same,” said Hourn. “We get jostled and thrown around [on the tractors], but I’m fine, I’m happy,” she said and chuckled.
Sokhoern added, “People tell me, ‘Uncle, you are old, it’ll be difficult to join. You shouldn’t go to Prey Lang.’ But I come anyway and I’m so happy. I know I’m old, but I have energy in my heart, so I am committed to planting trees so that young people after me can keep on living,” said Sokhoern.
Hourn said she had a message for people cutting the trees. “I wish you’d stop doing this, please, protect the trees instead of cutting them all down. We know that when we have the forest, we have rain and other benefits. We need to protect it for future generations.”
On the last day of the program, people gathered in a circle at the campsite. Most of them were dirty and tired, but still smiling in photos and exchanging contact info with new friends. They then took turns speaking into a megaphone to share their reflections on the tree planting/camping experience.
Maly from Phnom Pen spoke, “I am someone who loves trees so much I buy them and put them in my house as furniture. But now after joining this event, I’m going to stop buying wooden furniture and I’m going to tell my friends and neighbors not to buy it too. What I’ve seen here is that the Prey Lang Community Network really loves and cares for the forest. I’m in awe of you. So I wonder, why do the people in Phnom Penh not do more to support you? Anyway, I’m glad I came and I hope to bring my child and husband next year.”
A young forest ranger in black boots and camouflage uniform took the megaphone. “Thank you for letting me and the other officials, police, and rangers to collaborate with you to protect the forest. Today I’m proud and happy to see you all joining together to plant trees. I am a forest ranger, and I’m pleased to see people supporting and helping to protect the forest too."
Finally, Sophay, a 2-time participant, spoke, “I want to send a message to everyone in Cambodia and around the world, We have to try harder to protect the Prey Lang forest here in Cambodia so we have it forever!!” We need to be united, we have to work together, we have to advocate together so that we succeed!”
Thank you so much to everyone who helped us to make this possible.
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