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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Life on the fringes over for many in Koh Kong

Life on the fringes over for many in Koh Kong

When forest-dwelling families first arrived at Sovanna Baitong, there was little more than a road and recently cleared fields.

F

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

main street.

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.

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