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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Community forest gives hope to hill tribes

Community forest gives hope to hill tribes

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One of the Kreung village elders who attended the signing ceremony. The Kreung revere certain sections of the forest as sacred.

O

CHUM DISTRICT - Churning up clouds of Ratanakiri's notorious red dust, a military

helicopter carrying a representative of King Sihanouk from Phnom Penh landed in a

clearing in the forest mid-morning on December 29. More than 1,000 indigenous Kreung

highlanders had assembled there to join Governor Kham Khoeun and Kong Som Ol, the

King's chief of cabinet, in signing an historic community forestry agreement.

The agreement - in the making since 1997 - marks a crucial victory for Cambodian

indigenous people's rights over the depredations of foreign timber concessions, in

this case the Hero Taiwan Company.

The signing officially handed over the protection and management of almost 5,000

hectares of semi-evergreen forest - officially within the 60,000 hectare Hero Taiwan

timber concession - to the Ya Poey Community Forestry Association, comprised of representatives

of six indigenous villages that have lived in and used the forest for generations.

The creation of the community forest is designed to protect traditional forest conservation

areas from commercial exploitation by timber concessionaires such as Hero Taiwan,

which was granted cutting rights to the area in early 1998 by the Ministry of Agriculture,

Forestry and Fisheries without any consultation with provincial authorities.

And while violations by Hero Taiwan of its concession agreement have been repeatedly

noted by environmental watchdog organization Global Witness, so far Hero's chainsaws

- as well those of illegal or anarchic logging groups - have not violated the Ya

Poey Community Forest.

The idea for the forestry association sprang out of community meetings in Poey commune

in 1996 and 1997, when residents of Koy village began to circulate the idea of forming

an association to protect O Tabearr forest, which they rely on for "non-timber

forest products" such as rattan, bamboo, malva nuts, and medicinal plants.

Sections of O Tabearr forest are also revered by the Kreung as sacred sites, where

breaking off a piece of bamboo or shouting loudly can anger the resident spirits

and bring calamity to nearby villages.

In early 1997, five other villages endorsed the idea of a forestry association, extending

the area to be protected to Tapean, Yao and Stieng forests, in addition to O Tabearr.

The association was named after Ya Poey, a legendary elder who lived in Poey commune

five generations ago, from whom all six villages descend.

"The idea came from villagers," said Kreung elder Kata Dan, 48. "We

wanted to preserve the trees in our forest and protect the areas where we collect

rattan and vines. Our forests were recognized and respected by the villagers, but

we needed recognition by officials in the government in order to stop the companies

and outsiders coming in to log or hunt wildlife."

Kreung villagers in traditional dress beat gongs and sang as they welcomed the King's

representative, Kong Som Ol. Formerly Minister of Agriculture in the early 1990s,

Kong Som Ol brought blessings from King Sihanouk, who met with several representatives

of the community forestry association in July 2000.

"Today is the day the government is handing over the forest to the citizens

here to take care of the forest," said Kong Som Ol. "This doesn't mean

you can cut it down. Please take care of this forest so it will be a good model for

community forestry in Ratanakiri and the rest of Cambodia. Take care of your forest

so that it's there for your children and grandchildren and they - and you - can prosper."

The Ya Poey Community Forestry Association was launched by villagers in early 1997,

when they established community patrols and agreed on the boundaries of the community

forest and regulations for its use and protection.

The regulations prohibit the cutting or burning of trees within the forest for swidden

plots or for logging. While hunting of certain species of deer or wild pig is allowed,

rare species such as gaur, banteng, sunbear and tiger cannot be hunted, and hunters

are allowed to use only traditional hunting gear such as crossbows and traps - not

guns or grenades. Non-timber forest products such as rattan and bamboo can be collected

within the forest, but only for individual subsistence use, not for sale to outside

companies.

In July 1997 the villagers prepared an application to formalize the community forestry

association. After some negotiation, their request was approved and signed by the

provincial governor, commune and district officials, and relevant provincial departments.

The forestry association ran into several stumbling blocks along the way. One of

the provincial vice-governors agreed to hand deliver the application to relevant

ministries in Phnom Penh. That plan was thwarted, however, by the fighting that broke

out the day the vice-governor landed in Phnom Penh with the application - July 5,

1997. Since then, the application has been in limbo.

In January 1998, Tao Seng Hour, then-Minister of Agriculture, wrote a letter endorsing

the Ya Poey Community Forestry Association, but the lack of a national community

forestry law hindered formal, legal, recognition of the association by the central

government. That same month, the government granted approval to the Hero-Taiwan company

to log an area that overlaps Ya Poey Community Forest.

Nonetheless, the villager's pending application - which had been approved at the

provincial level - became a powerful tool that prevented logging within the boundaries

of Ya Poey Forest, even at a time when logging was widespread throughout Ratanakiri

in advance of the 1998 elections.

On one occasion in early 1998, Kreung villagers came across a small band of soldiers

illegally logging within their forest. Upon being shown copies of the provincially-approved

documents by the villagers, the loggers apologized and beat a hasty retreat.

"Even though the legal status of the association at the national level has been

pending since July 1997, the papers signed by the province, together with the Minister

of Agriculture's letter of endorsement, have provided amazing protection from logging

in Ya Poey," said Gordon Paterson, coordinator of the Non-Timber Forest Products

Project, an NGO in Ratanakiri that assisted the villagers in forming the association

and mapping the forest boundaries.

In Phnom Penh, however, the Department of Forestry claims to know little about the

new Community Forest program in Ratanakiri and expressed uncertainty about whether

it would work.

"I can't comment on this plan as I haven't received a report about it,"

said Chea Sam Ong, Deputy Director of the Department of Forestry. "The plan

could be good or bad...it depends on the community leader and understanding [of forest

conservation] of the people who live there."

No such ambivalence was evident after the signing of the agreement in O Chum.

As villagers broke out jars of rice wine to celebrate the signing of the Community

Forestry agreement, Yiyay Lao, an elderly women from Poey Commune, said: "If

we lose the forest, it affects us all. If the companies take the wood, there's nothing

left for the next generation."

Additional reporting by Emily Polack

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