When forest-dwelling families first arrived at Sovanna Baitong, there was little more than a road and recently cleared fields.
or the 76 families who moved from the rich forests of the Cardamom Moutains to an
experimental development community near town, life has changed dramatically.
Like many of his new neighbors, Moeun Khem, 42, has spent decades hunting wildlife
and clearing protected forest land to plant dry rice around Chi Phat, in Thmar Baing
district of Kong Kong province.
But last year he took up an offer from the wildlife conservation NGO WildAid to move
his family to the nearest town, Andong Teuk, where he was given a 1.5 hectare plot
of land and helped to set up a permanent farm with rice, vegetables and fruit.
"In four years, the fruit trees I have planted will give fruit, so that I can
support my six children," said Khem, who has planted more than 200 saplings.
While he waits for his orchard to mature, Khem makes a living selling vegetables
at the district market, with WildAid providing transport for the goods.
Khem's is just one of the success stories coming from Sovanna Baitong, a development
village established in September 2003 as an alternative to the damaging practices
of shifting cultivation and wildlife trading.
Chi Phat was chosen because of its location in the "elephant corridor"
of southwest Cambodia, which has a reputation of being a poacher's paradise. In addition,
WildAid estimates that in the past 20 years, 50,000 hectares of tropical forest have
been destroyed by unsustainable farming in the area.
In 2003, the Cambodian government donated 1,500 hectares of land for the village,
which is part of the Community Agriculture Development Project (CADP), funded by
the United States Agency for International Development.
The project has been a challenging one, requiring extensive community consultation,
and WildAid staff have found the former jungle dwellers have been slow to pick up
on new agricultural techniques.
Most families have not yet established rice paddies to grow their staple diet item
and have relied on vegetables sold at the market or WildAid assistance to survive.
But WildAid agricultural specialist, Erez Ashkenazi, said the farms will eventually
provide the families with food and an income.
"Cambodia has its own resources, why do they need to import fruits and vegetables
from other countries?" Erez asked.
WildAid has said it will hand over land ownership to those at Savanna Baitong who
develop their farms for three years, but until then the plots are non transferable.
The wildlife NGO has spent an average of $2,500 to assist each family in setting
up their farms, Ashkenazi said.
Savanna Baitong development village is thought to be the first of its kind in Cambodia
and provides a counterbalance to the enforcement of conservation laws by military
police hired by WildAid to patrol the forest.
Nearly two years later, vegetable gardens and orchids are flourishing.
Locals have not been pleased with a ban on the use of charcoal for cooking, and the
seizure of 900 kilograms of harvested tree resin in December 2003 backfired when
angry residents took back the goods and assaulted a military police captain in the
But, while some small-scale wildlife trading continues, WildAid is beginning to repair
the damage done by years of slash-and-burn agriculture.
On May 25, WildAid Country Director Suwanna Gauntlett traveled to the area to oversee
the start of a reforestation effort that will see 30,000 saplings of the beng and
thnong luxury timber species planted on 25 hectares of land north of Chi Phat.
"Our policy is to restore the forest which has been cleared and to protect the
main forest against slash-and-burn agriculture," Gauntlett said.
"For the next ten years the area will become a great eco-tourism site if there
is good conservation," she said.
Hout Bunnary, deputy director general at Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries,
warned that people who clear the forest at the conservation area will run into trouble
and will ultimately achieve nothing.
"Planting a tree anywhere is not difficult, but the difficulty is how to protect
those trees to grow up," Bunnary said.
The replanting project is expected to take one month to complete.