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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Foresters take a paint brush to PR battle

Foresters take a paint brush to PR battle

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forest.jpg

Art contest helps voice the challenges faced by community forestry

Too shy to give her name, the 5-year-old girl with a ponytail took 2nd prize for her mixed-media representation of an Alexandrine parakeet.

A shy 5-year-old girl with giant eyes and a ponytail sticking straight up like a

fountain had walked five kilometers from her home to enter her drawings in the Phnom

Toub Cheng Community Forest Art Exhibition and Open Day.

In the same five years of her life, members of her community, together with the American

Friends Service Committee (AFSC), have worked hard to ensure the younger generation

has such a forest to enjoy.

Her colorful drawings showing Alexandrine parakeets were a reward of their work.

Phnom Toub Cheng community forest is situated in the middle reaches of the Kampong

Som River catchment, in the Elephant Mountain range, Sre Ambel district, Koh Kong

province.

Community forests are facilitated by NGOs and government programs encouraging villages

and communes to take part in the decision-making and management of their natural

resources.

Although community forest groups currently have limited legal power to influence

what happens in their areas, the government and developers are beginning to include

them in negotiations on issues that affect them. Pending community forest legislation

should further strengthen their role.

Phnom Toub Cheng community forest received recognition by the provincial authorities

in 2003, and locals proudly erected a sign in front of their headquarters in Kran

Chak village that demarcates their 3,046-hectares of land.

On the last Sunday of March, the local community forest committee and AFSC organized

an open day and art exhibition with the theme "How our community forest helps

people and the forest."

Dozens of colorful A3-size drawings were pinned up on the inside of the community

forest house. They depicted scenes of elephants, monkeys, colorful birds and lush

forest.

The works were arranged according to the age of the artists, and the images produced

by older entrants tended to highlight people's dependence on the forest.

On reaching the final wall displaying the work by 18-year-olds and up, illustrations

of elephants and monkeys had been replaced with scenes of men and women collecting

and processing non-timber forest products.

Song Kheang, AFSC natural resource component manager, said the winning entrants in

the older categories were not necessarily the best artists, but had portrayed the

most meaning in their work.

"Their art had to show the importance of the forest for their livelihoods,"

Kheang said.

The winning entrant in the 18-plus category, Mr. That, was presented with a camera

at the award ceremony held that evening. Other winners received Cambodian bird books,

footballs, t-shirts and kramas.

After viewing the art, visitors had a choice of a boat trip through mangrove tunnels

along an oxbow lake, a challenging trek climbing steep forested slopes, or a leisurely

stroll in the hope of glimpsing the unique birdlife in the area.

The dramatic scenery was enhanced by an afternoon thunderstorm, which forced the

climbing group to abandon their scramble up the mountain. They skidded back down

to flat land.

As recently as 1996 there were still Khmer Rouge ambushes in Koh Kong province. The

insecurity made it one of the last areas in Cambodia to receive much-needed outside

aid.

AFSC was one of the first NGOs to venture in. They began their work in 1997.

Rare wildlife is also re-appearing in the area. Villagers say they sighted a tiger

in the district last November.

Wayne McCallum, former AFSC natural resource adviser, said the art exhibition and

open day provided an opportunity to engage outsiders who would normally never make

the intrepid journey to the area.

He said it would also alert visitors to the plight faced by the community and the

forest.

"Toub Cheng still remains green and lush - it is a forest of hope," he

said. "But this forest is under threat."

Provincial authority recognition of the community forest amounts to little security,

as Chinese company CETIC International Hydro Power Development, with the support

of the Ministry of Industry Mines and Energy, plans to construct the Kirirom III

dam in the area.

McCallum said the dam construction could open up the area to unsustainable land development

and land grabbing.

"There are also potentially severe effects on local ecosystems, including freshwater

fisheries and the land adjacent to the river," he said.

Song Kheang understands the company is presently completing a feasibility study on

the project.

A community forest sub-decree was passed at the end of 2003, but awaits a prakas

to be signed by the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) before

it can be put into practice.

The prakas is in its draft stage, and after consultation with NGOs and community

workers, they hope it will be passed by the middle of the year.

The implementation of this sub-decree would mean existing community forests could

then be recognized by the Forest Administration, a department of MAFF.

For communities such as Phnom Toub Cheng, this would give them a sense of security

for the long-term survival of their natural resource systems.

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