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