Ben and Sharyn Davis moved to Phnom Thot nine months ago, hoping to start an ambitious ecotourism project. But their two-person mission has become a face-off with poachers and loggers
Ben and Sharyn Davis live in a two-bedroom wooden house in the middle of Phnom Thot forest in Preah Vihear province. It’s completely isolated – the nearest village is some two hours’ drive over rough terrain – but the young family has plenty of company.
Outside their home, a large python temporarily rests in a handmade enclosure. A three-year-old gibbon named Molly swings from the treetops and greets guests at the door. She rolls around with the family’s two pet dogs, rifles through cupboards and takes naps on the bed. Wild peacocks and monkeys pay regular visits.
For the past nine months, the Davises have carved out a life here, in the heart of the 6,000 hectare woodland, as part of their two-person effort to combat the destruction of the forest. It’s a mission that has them pitted against poachers and loggers alike.
“I was hearing axes in my sleep last night,” said Sharyn, a 41-year-old Australian national, speaking at her home earlier this week. As she spoke, she stroked the gibbon, who hung from her neck, pulling her hair. “Logging is definitely the biggest concern here. There aren’t many valuable trees left, but people still come,” she added.
The pair – who arrived in Cambodia in the ’90s – have been battling bureaucracy since 2011 to get Phnom Thot officially named a community forest in the hope that doing so will make it harder for companies to strip the land. It’s been approved at the provincial level but still needs a signature from the Ministry of Agriculture.
Ministry spokesman Thun Sarath said he was unsure how the application was progressing. But, he said, a decision would be made based on “the size of the area and how people use it”.
Once they get approval, the couple hope to create an ecotourism site run by paid locals. They have already started building this from scratch, using their own money.
The way the Davises see it, ecotourism could be the forest’s saving grace. Their plans for the area include ziplines, a swimming pool, tree houses and nature treks. They hope to attract a mix of backpackers and birdwatchers.
And it’s certainly an attractive spot: in the heart of the sprawling woodland, trees stretch into the skyline; birds dart between branches; monkeys can be heard shrieking into the distance.
Life in the forest has been an adjustment. The family live off the natural supply of water and vegetables from a large garden they tend. They built their own two-bedroom house using naturally felled timber. Their two daughters, six-year-old Jarrah and Amelie, 10, are home-schooled. “It’s got its challenges, believe me, and at times you feel pretty isolated – but we’re surviving so far,” said Ben, a 48-year-old American national from Oregon.
But the sacrifices are worth it, he explained. “You’ve got to be on site all the time if you actually want it to happen, otherwise, it’s just too complicated, with too many external forces working against you,” Ben said. “I’m just trying to do at least one community forest successfully if possible, I don’t want to be beat.”
Ben chose the area after surveying forests in southern Preah Vihear for the biggest concentrations of wildlife. But while still a thriving ecosystem, the area was devastated last year when loggers working for tycoon Try Pheap stripped it of most of its most precious woods, causing “spot damage” across the forest. According to Sharyn, “pretty much everyone [in the local community] was involved [in the logging] in one way or the other”.
But while Pheap has moved on, and only a handful of rosewood trees still stand, loggers and poachers continue to strip what is left of the forest. “No one’s really thinking of the future,” Ben said.
Throughout 2013, illegal logging and poaching devastated the area, explained Hou Kalyan, country director for international NGO The Center for People and Forests. “There were many illegal logging and poaching activities happening in the area in 2013 mainly by military and people from Siem Reap and Kampong Thom, including local people,” he said.
“In addition, land encroachment by local people for farmland has also caused the destruction of forest and wildlife resources in the area.”
According to Sharyn, in addition to local villagers, large groups of loggers make a two-week round trip into the forest via ox-cart from villages around Siem Reap province. They wait until night to fell the timber.
In an effort to deter the loggers, the couple pay a group of villagers to patrol the forest. In addition to a daily wage, they pay the group $70 for each chainsaw confiscated. Last week, the patrollers returned with four chainsaws.
The couple say that their presence in the forest has deterred loggers in the immediate area, but it is impossible for them, or the patrollers, to guard the entire woodland.
And, Ben says, the “wildlife is even harder than the trees to keep safe”.
Phnom Thot forest is home to many rare and endangered species including white-winged wood ducks, Sambar deer and the wild cattle known as Banteng.
Chris Shepherd, Southeast Asia director of wildlife trade-monitoring network TRAFFIC, said protecting these species is crucial.
“All three species have vanished from large parts of their original range in Southeast Asia due to illegal and unsustainable hunting and habitat loss, and every effort should be made to protect and preserve areas where they are still found,” he said by email.
But this is no easy task.
Patrollers regularly collect snares, which the couple say are laid indiscriminately and risk catching the forest’s rare and endangered species.
“Villagers have got a culture of hunting; as long as there’s anything to hunt, they’ll hunt it until it’s gone,” Ben said.
But he continues to dream of more regular sightings of the forest’s rarer species.
“When they see they’re not getting persecuted, they just get tame automatically. If you can stop a persecution, it doesn’t take long to stop them from running when they see you,” he explained.
The couple’s efforts have won them fans among the local community.
One villager, Cheang Vuthy, said he’s “proud” of their work. “[Ben’s] a foreigner, but he likes Cambodia’s forests and animals. Without him all the animals would be gone,” he said. But while most villagers are embracing the plans, some are less happy.
“People we’re impacting, like the people who are logging actively and some of the poachers who regularly come here hunting, we’ve taken up a lot of snares, and they’re not appreciating that,” Sharyn said.
Despite some resistance, the family remains confident that their idea for an ecotourism site run by members of the community could be the key to tackling the illegal practices.
Poachers and loggers need “an alternative way to make an income … Nobody’s stopped hunting because of workshops or billboards, and nobody’s stopped cutting the trees,” Ben said.
And they are not the only ones who think ecotourism could be the answer.
Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, co-founder of local NGO Mother Nature, said he has been considering a similar approach in the Areng Valley, in attempts to block the construction of a hydropower dam which is expected to devastate the local environment.
But, he said, there are “a lot of obstacles”.
”For people in these communities, it’s hard to justify earning $7 a day to work as a guide or something when they could be earning so much more from logging,” he said.
The authorities don’t welcome the approach either, because “it’s not profitable”, he said.
According to Gonzalez-Davidson, a planned visitor centre in the Areng Valley has been blocked by officials.
“The government is protecting the interests of criminals … when you don’t even have a working Forestry Administration, you’re lacking a key ingredient,” he said.
Nonetheless, ecotourism is “one of the few viable options”.
It’s important that people are “planting the seeds so that in the future, when there’s a real government,” the vision can be achieved, he said.
The Davises agree that, without efforts today to protect the Kingdom’s rich natural resources, in the near future, there could be nothing left.
Already “there’s almost no resources left, so in the future, in order to keep supplying the domestic need, it's going to really stretch what’s left … I’m worried about that,” said Ben.
On the outskirts of the woodland, a world away from the heart of the forest, rows of houses display logged wood for sale, a stark reminder of the challenges still to overcome.