A new effort to
preserve Koh Kong's
WildAidís Suwanna Gauntlett, district governor On Pheareak and commune chief Uy Ay, stand next to the first sign. The message reads: ìThis is forest estate. Do not encroach beyond this sign.î
collection of orange triangular warning signs along a quiet dirt road in Koh Kong
mark the beginning of a new project to stop encroachment into the province's forests
and protected areas.
The program is being run by the Department of Forestry in conjunction with environmental
NGO WildAid. One of the main reasons behind the project, says WildAid country director
Suwanna Gauntlett, is to protect the forest corridor that allows elephants to pass
between Koh Kong's Botum Sakor National Park and the Cardamom mountains.
Another is to ensure the south-west's rich natural heritage is conserved in line
with the government's ambitions to promote Cambodia as an eco-tourism destination.
The recent upgrade of Route 48, which runs through Koh Kong, has made it easier for
people to exploit land that was previously out of reach, adding a sense of urgency
to the project.
WildAid's warning signs are the most visible face of the effort to preserve former
logging concessions in the province for future generations. The first signs went
up on April 20 on the boundary of the former Vuthy Pearnik logging concession, which
was canceled in 2002.
In short the project requires keeping farmers away from the forest estate, says Gauntlett,
and making sure land is not sold illegally by local authorities. The demarcation
exercise is an important step in that process.
"One of the strategies that we are planning to implement is to assist farmers
develop alternative livelihoods so that they will stop cutting the forest and hunting
wildlife," says Gauntlett. "This includes an agricultural assistance program,
which provides training, seeds and buffalo, and community-based eco-tourism."
Sun Hean, a conservation biologist at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
(MAFF), says it marks the first time this approach has been tried here. Experience
shows it has worked in other countries, and Hean is optimistic it will be successful.
"The demarcation work will benefit both the government and the community,"
says Hean, who is also the assistant to MAFF Minister Chan Sarun. He says the government
will benefit from having explicit regulations to follow. "And the community
will benefit from having clear limitations on where they can [farm]."
Hean says the villagers of Chi Phat, where the program began in late April, told
him they would prefer to work their own fields rather than use slash-and-burn farming
methods in the forest, something circumstance forces them to do at the moment.
"They said it is very hard to cut the forest every two years, then leave and
encroach again, so they would be happier if they are supported [on their existing
fields] with techniques to help them with sustainable agriculture," he says.
The demarcation program will be run in three areas that contain several thousand
families in Koh Kong province: Chi Phat, Sre Ambel in the former Talam concession,
and Chhay Ariang.
But the program is not without its potential pitfalls. One complication is the country's
widespread poverty, which forces villagers to seek land wherever they can get it.
Another is the fact that under the new Forestry Law, canceled logging concessions
are not automatically granted protected status.
Twenty hectares of forest recently cleared near Chi Phat.
But Sun Hean rejects that, and says the decision has already been made within MAFF
to turn the two former logging concessions of Vuthy Pearnik and GAT into protected
areas. He says the sub-decree has been drafted, and he hopes it will go to the Council
of Ministers for signature before the general election in July.
The poverty factor, which drives impoverished villagers to turn forest estate over
to agriculture, was illustrated by 33-year-old Sun Has from a village in the province
called Phum Tuk Ot Laor (Bad Water Village).
The Post found Sun Has sitting 20 miles from home in a blackened 20-hectare swath
of former forest that he and 30 other families have leveled and turned to charcoal.
His aim is to grow rice on his half-hectare section.
He already owns three hectares of land in his village, but cannot farm rice there
as the soil is poor. He has "no buffalo, no labor, no tractor" to help
him, so he came to the forest.
"We have no alternative," he says with his wife sitting next to him under
a rough shelter. "If we cannot cut the trees, then we will have no rice and
we will die."
Gauntlett says the encounter with the couple shows how important it is that the project
take villagers' circumstances into account. WildAid has set up a pilot project offering
each of the 30 families one buffalo to go back to their lands, an offer a slightly
skeptical Sun Has says he would gladly accept.
The combination of education and offering villagers the alternative of sustainable
agriculture, including growing crops other than rice in suitable areas, says Gauntlett,
are key aspects of the program.
Getting the authorities on board at the provincial, district and commune level is
also vital. Another "major factor" is to ensure villagers have secure land
title, as that will preclude them being forced off their land. She says the Ministry
of Land Management will soon run a training course for local officials on the participatory
land use program.
"The objective is for people who already have land tenure to acquire legal land
title without having to pay monies to local authorities," Gauntlett says.
And what of the draw factor that WildAid's assistance could provide - won't that
result in people moving to the province in the hope of help? Gauntlett says the topic
was discussed with the governor of Koh Kong province, who assured her that new arrivals
will not be permitted to stay.
T'mor Beng's district governor, On Pheareak, spent the day with the WildAid team
on April 20. He explained the scheme to several hundred villagers in Chi Phat and
helped erect the first warning signs.
Pheareak says it is imperative that the program succeeds, and pledged to keep working
with the commune chiefs to ensure villagers in his district follow the rules and
stay out of the forests.
"This program is good for the Cambodian people as it will help keep the forest
and animals for the next generation," Pheareak says. "If we don't have
this program then the protection of the animals, including tigers and elephants,
will be finished."