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Story Publication logo February 3, 2023

Predators of the Trees (Italian)


A person paddles a boat through a mangrove forest.

The health of the Mekong River and of the Cambodian rainforest are two sides of the same coin.

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This story excerpt was translated from Italian. To read the original story in full, visit L'Internazionale.

The floating village of Moat Khla on Lake Tonlé Sap. Image by Nanni Fontana and Massimo Di Nonno/Internazionale. Cambodia, 2022.

Cambodia holds the world record for illegal deforestation and, thanks to the complicity of institutions, the timber smuggled into Vietnam also reaches Europe. An exposé reconstructs the stages of looting worth billions of euros.

So here he is, the unarmed guerrilla. The rendezvous is at a kiosk in Stung Treng, toward the end of the tree-lined avenue overlooking the Mekong. A few French buildings spared by the civil war still lend a colonial patina to this river town in northeast Cambodia. The sunset stretches faint purple streaks across the great river, garlands of colored lights from restaurants reflect on the water. The young man, dressed in army green, looks guarded. He stays close to the motorcycle, evidently ready to escape at any moment. There he greets us with a peaceful, bright smile, but his very black eyes remain alert, betraying a habit of being on guard. And perhaps a greater familiarity with the pitfalls of the jungle than the chaos of this riverfront.

Talking to each other is difficult: The upper floors of the buildings are used to breed a particular species of swallows, attracted with loudspeakers that emit deafening artificial garritos, a soundtrack that overpowers even that of scooter horns, and that invites these birds to build their nests here, kneaded with saliva. There are thousands of them, destined for the Chinese market, where the finest restaurants buy them for more than $2,000 a kilo.

We are here, however, to tell about another business, that of Cambodia's prized timber. Some varieties, for example rosewood, cost as much as swallow saliva. The wood also ends up in China. Or, by deception, to Europe.

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Cambodia holds the world record for illegal logging. It lost about 2.5 million hectares of forest, an area equivalent to Sicily, between 2001 and 2020, according to the NGO Amnesty international. According to data from Global Forest Watch in the Cambodian rainforest, once referred to as the "Amazon of Southeast Asia," for every 10 trees cut down, nine are illegally logged. The loggers are mostly impoverished laborers, rangers act as lookouts, and the principals are found in the power palaces of the capital, Phnom Penh. The loot is smuggled into Vietnam and exported abroad from there: In 2022 lumber and timber products earned 16.3 billion euros, and Vietnamese furniture exports have grown by an average of 2 percent each year since 2015.

Map by L'Internazionale.

Deforestation around the world. Loss of tropical primary forests in 2021 by country, percent. Chart by L'Internazionale.

The village of Siem Bouk, on the banks of the Mekong River. Image by Nanni Fontana and Massimo Di Nonno/L'Internazionale. Cambodia, 2022.

Activist Heng Sros. Siem Bouk. Image by Nanni Fontana and Massimo Di Nonno/L'Internazionale. Cambodia, 2022.

The royal palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Image by Nanni Fontana and Massimo Di Nonno/L'Internazionale. 2022.

A Cambodian People's Party election billboard in the village of Srae Chang. Image by Nanni Fontana and Massimo Di Nonno/L'Internazionale. Cambodia, 2022.


a yellow halftone illustration of a truck holding logs




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