DECIMATED by years of logging and slash-and-burn farming, the once-mighty Cardamom forest of Koh Kong province is pitted with hillsides laid bare under the glaring sun.
Lone trees, miraculously spared the axe, loom out of the grasses like tombstones – reminders of a time before international logging companies scythed the former Khmer Rouge-controlled area around the village of Chi Pat for lucrative wood hauls.
Now the logging has stopped and forests have been protected by the Cambodian government, but decades of exploitation are hard to erase. One international NGO, however, has attempted to rebuild the forest for the sake of generations to come.
Wildlife Alliance (WA) – funded by undisclosed sums donated by private investors – set up a tree nursery with the intention of replanting 2 million trees by 2011. Surveying a seemingly endless horizon of grassy fields, WA’s Israeli reforestation manager, Danny Goldschtein, 53, is hopeful for the future.
“In 1972, this was covered with trees. I believe I will see trees again here from heaven, or at least Google Earth,” he said, shortly before leaving the project in the hands of WA’s nearby agricultural livelihoods project based in Sovanna Baitong.
The organisation has planted 153,000 trees around the southern reaches of the mountain range and hopes that over the next 25 years the forest will grow and help preserve the area from soil erosion – caused by rainfall on unstable ground no longer secured by a network of tree roots.
But nurturing saplings able to survive Cambodia’s harsh hot season is not an easy task.
A network of specialist greenhouses, sprinkling systems and fields has been set up in order to take 67 types of tree from seed to sapling, before being replanted in tree paddocks.
For up to three weeks, the tiny seedlings are germinated in a coco-peat mix while being fed by a mist of water and nutrients. They are then replanted in a shade house, protected from 50 percent of the unforgiving sun, before being replanted again in a sprinkler-fed open field.
When the wet season hits, a rush of manpower will be used to place the young trees in the wild to fend for themselves.
Despite risks from fires, spread from neighbouring farms that use blazes to stimulate growth, and wild animals, it is hoped that enough trees will survive to form the basis of a new forest.
But, like any project in Cambodia, the reforestation project is a lattice full of ironies, as economic development and protectionism vie for support.
Over the river from the reforestation project lies the new sugar cane plantation created from economic land concessions. Locals who remain reticent about the plant – which is a large employer in the area – talk of trees being knocked down to create kilometre after kilometre of crops in the name of economic development.
Equally, many of the workers employed by the project are the very people who, for economic reasons, helped destroy the jungle.
Under the shade of the project’s greenhouses, 41-year-old plantation grower Chion Neng, of Kam Lot village, Chi Pat commune, who earns 10,000 riels (US$2.38) a day, said: “Before I worked here, I used to cut down trees to make wood charcoal for sale at a small cost. I didn’t earn much, compared with working at the reforestation project.”
Wildlife Alliance hopes their project will continue to flourish and eventually be put in the hands of the community and the government.
Lesley Perlmen, WA’s programme manager, said: “We don’t want to be doing this forever. Reforestation is in the hands of the government. We hope that one day villagers can use the forest in a sustainable manner. We believe it can be done.”