Two months ago forestry official Dr. Ing Mok Mareth wasn't sure what the State of
Cambodia's (SOC) position should be on eucalyptus plantations.
But things became clearer for him after a 10-day tour to Thailand last month-where
he talked with villagers who have lost their homes, seen their soil depleted and
eroded, and watched as natural forests around them were leveled to make way for eucalyptus
"Now I understand about eucalyptus," said Mareth, SOC vice minister of
agriculture. "I don't agree with eucalyptus plantations. I don't like it in
big form, large plantations. Small scale is okay because it's fast growing and can
respond to the need for firewood and construction."
The forestry tour was organized by the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Cambodia
and a Thai NGO, the Project for Ecological Recovery.
Accompanying Mareth on the tour were Or Seuan, vice director of the SOC forestry
department, and Chhun Saretth, chief of the forestry department's technical office.
In Thailand, the Khmer officials visited plantations and community forests in six
northeastern provinces and met with Royal Thai Forestry Department and logging company
They also learned firsthand about "community forestry," previously largely
an environmental buzzword to them.
The term can mean anything from villagers planting and protecting trees near their
homes, to portions of natural forests being turned over to villagers to safeguard,
while allowing them to reap some of the benefits by collecting forest products.
"Vast areas of Cambodia can be reforested simply by protecting it and allowing
it to regenerate naturally-by giving local villagers the right to protect and use
that forest in a low-intensity way. It's much more cost effective than fencing the
forests or hiring guards," said Gordon Paterson of MCC, who accompanied the
Contracts made with villagers could include giving them land tenure rights, letting
them interplant fruit trees within the forest, and allowing them to cut small amounts
of firewood for domestic use, Paterson said.
"The idea is to parcel out a threatened area for community management rather
than hand it over to foreign companies to plant eucalyptus," he said.
Over the past five years in northeastern Thailand, resettlement of farmers to make
way for eucalyptus plantations has caused bitter clashes between rural villagers
and the Thai forestry department.
In Ubon province the Khmer officials visited a village that had blocked the cutting
of a secondary forest for a eucalyptus plantation.
In Srisaket province delegates viewed "forest villages," government-supported
settlements for people displaced by eucalyptus plantations who are paid to continue
growing crops such as rice or fruit between the eucalyptus trees for up to three
No provision is made for the villagers after the trees are grown and their crops
shaded out, Paterson said, and they are not eligible to share in the profits from
"They can't support themselves, and the government considers them illegal encroachers,"
In Surin the delegation viewed examples of "sustainable agriculture"-where
a diversity of indigenous species have been planted to restore deforested areas-as
well as "agroforestry" projects, where fruit trees have been planted on
irrigation dikes, enriching the soil while providing fruit as well.
While impressed with much of what he saw in Thailand, Mareth is adopting a cautious
approach to implementing any community forestry models in Cambodia, calling for an
"Now we have no law about community forestry," he said. "If we give
the forests directly to the villagers while we have no law, no experience, we might
destroy the forest."
The approach might work better in some parts of Cambodia than others, Mareth said.
"We need to study the traditions, lifestyles of people, case by case, in each
area," he said. "For example, in Kompong Speu the people make a living
by cutting firewood. It could be very difficult to organize [community forestry]