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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The "peoples' forests" thriving one year on

The "peoples' forests" thriving one year on

TAKEO - While massive logging contracts are being signed, threatening to devastate

Cambodia's forests, here in Takeo's Tramkak District, villagers are planting trees

to restore the natural forest - and are reaping the benefits.

One year after the villagers signed a contract with the government to create a "community

forest" of 500 hectares - to restore their local environment and their livelihood

- they claim that soil quality has improved, allowing them to grow more crops.

"The good soil is starting to come back," said Son Tok, 50, a farmer in

Prey Mouk village, who has three plots of land where he has been growing trees.

Tok said that the crop production this year is much better than in the last few years,

when it was crippled by infertile soils.

1,720 families from twelve villages around Prey Ler asked the government to grant

them ownership of the land in return for replanting trees, regenerating the natural

forest.

The villagers say that since the early 1980s the original forest in this area was

gradually destroyed by farmers clearing trees to grow crops, and cutting for fuelwood

and construction timber. They said that the both local authorities and villagers

did not care about the destruction, and slowly the forests disappeared from the province.

As the forests disappeared, the problems of villagers increased. Ngim Peng, chief

of the community forest area, said that several hectares of land in his communes

used to lie abandoned because of the poor quality of the soil and most of the wood

supplies had to be brought in from other provinces such as Kompong Speu and Kampot.

With the help of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a Canada-based NGO which works

in six provinces focusing on reforestation and agricultural management, the villagers

set about finding their own solution. The culmination of their efforts came in December

1994, when they signed a contract with the Agriculture Ministry's Department of Forestry

to replant the forests to serve local wood demand and recover the local natural environment.

The contract grants the villagers long-term tenure of their land, for up to 60 years,

if they continue to protect the forest. After this period, the lease may be extended,

or canceled if the government wants the land back. But in this case, the government

will have to compensate the villagers for the market value of all the trees.

For its part, the government not only gets land reforested, but also gains revenue

from the community forest: 20 percent of timber harvested for sale, and ten percent

of timber used by the villagers themselves.

Ngim Peng said that in 1993, the year the project started, the villagers planted

only about one tree for every five they had planned to plant. This year they will

reach their target of 250 hectares, mostly with "short term" fast-growing

trees, such as acacia. Some villagers have been planting acacia since 1993 and already

some trees stand up to six metres high.

Larry Groff, the MCC adviser for the Tramkak project, explained that acacia, although

not a native tree, grows very well in dry soils and will be useful to the villagers

in the short term, not only for fuelwood and construction but for providing shade

in which 'long-term' trees - such as teak - can thrive.

He said that the tree planting will occur in two phases: first short term trees (from

ten-15 years) and in the second phase, longer term trees, taking 70 years to mature,

to restore the natural forest cover.

Since 1994 the villagers have become self-sufficient in tree seedlings, which previously

they had to buy from other provinces. Now they have six nurseries with 30,000 trees

to distribute to villagers.

Peng explained that the ambitious project has not been without its difficulties.

In the first year, he was worried that his project would fail, and that the government

would then complain.

He added that it was difficult to educate the villagers at first because they didn't

understand about the importance of forests and the environment for their livelihoods.

"They cared only about their daily lives, what to eat... and that was all,"

Peng said.

He continued that MCC gave donations of rice and cash credit in order to solve the

villagers' short term economic problems, so that they could spare some time to plant

trees.

But now the benefits are being felt. Peng points to the previously-abandoned plots

of land, where a variety of crops are now thriving.

Son Tok added that most people in the province have great difficulty in finding enough

wood for fuel or construction and many poorer families have to resort to using straw

mixed with cow manure instead of firewood. But Tok said that now, thanks to the community

forest project, he and his villagers have a steady supply of fuelwood from cutting

branches from trees in the plantation.

Son Tok said that people in his village have become very aware of the value of the

forest and are keen to help protect it. The villagers have drawn up regulations to

protect the community forest, setting fines for anyone letting their domestic animals

destroy the trees, for cutting without permission, for hunting, or for burning forests

for any purpose.

"We are understanding about the problem of deforestation. We have restrictions

and regulations, and we will fine those who break them."

"I know that if we destroy the forests, it means we are destroying our livelihood."

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