The Green Generation: Award-Winning Youth Activists Leading the Way
“Fearless and engaging activism to preserve Cambodia’s natural environment in the context of a highly restricted democratic space.” This quote applies to many civil society forces in Cambodia who care deeply about environmental protection. In this context, however, it is dedicated solely to the group Mother Nature, on the occasion of their co-awarding of the Right Livelihood’s Award 2023 last week.
The Right Livelihood Award, also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize, was established in 1980 by Jacob von Uexküll, a Swedish-German publicist and environmental activist. This prestigious prize is recognised for its commitment to "shaping a better world." It is presented annually by the Right Livelihood Award Foundation and is funded through charitable contributions.
Mother Nature Cambodia, founded in 2012, has become the most important environmental rights organisation in the country, according to the jury's statement. It also stands for innovative, creative and above all young forms of protest that give expression to a whole generation of young Cambodians valuing the preservation of their own natural surroundings and Cambodia’s environmental heritage. Remarkably, Mother Nature Cambodia marks the first laureate from Cambodia to receive this distinction.
Through social media campaigns and the training and mobilisation of young Cambodians, the organisation has, for example, stopped the construction of a hydropower plant in the Areng Valley, which threatened to inundate 10,000 hectares of the Cardamom Mountains' forests and habitat for at least 31 endangered species. In addition, the project would have displaced around 1,600 people, primarily from the Chong indigenous group. Moreover, Mother Nature succeeded in stopping sand mining and illegal sand exports from Koh Kong province, which were destroying local fishing grounds and the ecosystem.
However, the group and its members have faced massive repression for their struggle with local communities for environmental protection and safe livelihoods. Since 2015, eleven activists have been imprisoned and dozens have been temporarily detained. Founder Alejandro González-Davidson was forced to leave Cambodia and was sentenced in absentia to 20 months in prison. This is also an expression of the fact that the elementary environmental concerns of young people often do not fall in line with the development interests of industrial and agricultural elites.
The most recent example thereof was the court-ordered ban on three activists to leave the country, preventing them from receiving their award in Stockholm in person. While serving parole for their environmental activism-related charges, the court denied the request for an exception made by the three activists by citing that the trip would be “unnecessary”. Statements of such kind not only express a lack of understanding for a generation that is committed to its own ecological future. At the same time, they have the potential to tarnish Cambodia's international climate image, which is not necessarily conducive to adaptation and mitigation measures in one of the world's most climate-vulnerable countries.
Instead, young Cambodians are taking a leadership role in this regard, expressing a fundamental responsibility for local ecosystems and a deeper understanding of flora and fauna. Mother Nature Cambodia effectively garnered local and international attention to environmental destruction through media campaigns and striking videos, including initiatives like "tree blessings." Their impactful videos, such as activists buried in sand up to their necks to symbolise harmful sand mining practices, garnered millions of views and widespread sharing.
Generally, environmental awareness among young people in Cambodia is on the rise, providing a promising sign for the future of the country's natural resources and ecosystems. In recent years, there has been a noticeable shift in the attitudes and actions of Cambodian youth towards environmental conservation and sustainability. Youth-led initiatives and organisations have played a crucial role in fostering environmental consciousness. Young Cambodians are actively engaging in various environmental projects, from tree planting campaigns to waste reduction and recycling efforts. These initiatives not only contribute to tangible improvements in their local communities but also serve as a source of inspiration for others.
Cambodia's unique natural beauty also serves as a motivator for young people to protect their country's environment. Iconic places like the Angkor Wat temples, pristine beaches, and lush rainforests are a source of pride for many Cambodians. As they witness the impact of environmental degradation on these treasures, the urgency to protect them grows stronger. Furthermore, increased outdoor activities among young people in Cambodia reflect a positive shift in lifestyle choices and a renewed connection to nature and physical well-being. In recent years, there has been a noticeable surge in the number of Cambodian youths engaging in various outdoor pursuits, from hiking and camping to cycling and water sports.
Cambodian youths are becoming more conscious of the importance of maintaining a sustainable living mindset, and they recognise that spending time outdoors offers a range of benefits. Adventure clubs, eco-tourism initiatives, and nature-based education programs are on the rise. These programs not only introduce young people to outdoor activities but also instill a sense of responsibility for protecting the environment they enjoy. As this trend continues to gain momentum, it is likely to have a positive and lasting impact on the physical and mental well-being of Cambodian youth and the environment they cherish. This involvement empowers them to influence policies and decisions that affect their environment directly.
With Mother Nature as a prime example of a "powerful voice for environmental preservation and democracy in Cambodia", related movements and primarily the attitude behind them, a deep emotional connection to nature, continue to grow and bear blossoms. As these young environmental stewards continue to learn, collaborate, and advocate for positive change, they will play a vital role in preserving Cambodia's rich biodiversity and safeguarding its natural heritage for generations to come.