David Mead: Rain Forest Warrior

David Mead
Photo: Conservation International

As a lieutenant in Vietnam, David Mead fought to defend hard-won territory. Now, he is bringing the same tenacity to his work as a conservationist in Cambodia.

By the age of 50, Australian David Mead had had a distinguished army career. After surviving internal injuries sustained in a Viet Cong minefield in 1969, he returned to do a second tour of duty in Vietnam, then became the Australian army’s director of infantry. In the 1990s, he was a defense adviser at the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh, where he evacuated Australians after a bloody military coup shattered Cambodia in 1997.

The coup was a turning point for Mead. He had been working to train local armed forces, and when they fell apart in the chaos that engulfed the country, he had a breakdown and took early retirement from the army. But within a few months, he was back in Cambodia. “The country is infectious,” he told Mark Baker of Melbourne’s The Age. “Your heart goes out to the people. They have had 30 years of unbelievable trauma. You feel that if you can, you want to do your bit for them.”

The urge to help led Mead, now 55, to start consulting on forestry issues, and it wasn’t long before he became the Cambodian director of the U.S.-based environmental lobbying group Conservation International (CI). In July 2002, Mead and CI won a huge victory when the Cambodian government granted protection to a 402,000 hectare area in the Cardamom Mountains in southwestern Cambodia.

A former redoubt of the Khmer Rouge, this region of lush rain forest had been badly degraded by logging and animal poaching. Its fauna, including tigers, bears, and the threatened Siamese crocodile, were in danger. Now, the newly preserved area is bordered by two other wildlife sanctuaries, bringing the total land under protection to 990,000 hectares—the largest wilderness in mainland Southeast Asia.

Mead says that his military training helped him persuade an authoritarian government to care about saving trees and animals. But he knows that getting a government to designate green areas is only half of the battle. To further protect the forest, there must be reform in the country’s army, whose soldiers are so badly paid that they cut forests and hunt wildlife to eke out a living.

Last June, Mead told a Phnom Penh conference that Cambodia “can either sustain a military that will continue to degrade the country’s natural resources, or it can reform to create a professional armed force.”

Though he never planned to be an environmentalist, Mead has proved his effectiveness in a tough job. Saving the rain forest, he says, is “about people, politics, winning the hearts and minds of the locals—stuff that I’ve been doing as a soldier for a long time.”