Human behaviour is a tricky thing to reliably control or predict. Some people will respond better to incentives and rewards – the proverbial carrot – while others are immune to such bribery and only do the right thing out of fear of the stick (proverbial or not). Most fall somewhere on a spectrum in-between and can be influenced by either or even both at the same time.

One local Cambodian NGO chose the path of carrots as the way forward in advancing their cause – and in more ways than one. Sansom Mlup Prey (SMP) is the NGO in question and it’s poured its efforts and resources into supporting meaningful agricultural livelihoods in order to provide alternatives to the destructive – but unfortunately often lucrative – activities like logging and poaching.

Founded in 2009 by the Wildlife Conservation Society, SMP works to protect the environment and its wildlife through the application of organic and wildlife-friendly agriculture in communities located in protected areas and critical habitats.

There are two programmes they focus on. The first is the IBIS Rice Programme and the Sustainable Rice Platform. The IBIS Rice Programme is currently operating in four provinces: Preah Vihear, Ratanakiri , Mondulkiri and Steung Treng, while the Sustainable Rice Platform is limited to Kampong Thom.

“SMP’s founding mandate was to help establish the cultivation of premium-quality, organic rice in remote communities inside the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia’s northwestern province of Preah Vihear through the IBIS Rice Programme.

“Since that time, SMP has helped expand the IBIS Rice Programme to other protected areas in Cambodia like the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary and the Siem Pang National Park in Stung Treng Province, and the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary in Mondulkiri province,” Mas Teyaorm, a development and communication officer at SMP tells The Post.

“We also use our agronomic and community development expertise to implement the sustainability project in Kampong Thom province in communities located near the Bengal Florican conservation area,” says Teyaorm.

The IBIS Rice programme involves an innovative partnership between SMP and its market-facing partner, the Ibis Rice Conservation Company.

The Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary is home to a unique savanna ecosystem that is the habitat of the critically-endangered giant ibis, Cambodia’s national bird. Unfortunately, with few alternatives, destructive activities like logging and poaching can be financially lucrative activities for people in the area who need meaningful employment opportunities to thrive.

This conflict creates severely negative consequences for the giant ibis and the integrity of the ecosystem, and threatens their future existence. Addressing this issue is the central goal of the IBIS Rice Programme, which it does by providing a meaningful opportunity for rural households to earn living incomes, while discontinuing these harmful activities.

IBIS Rice is organic rice that is farmed under wildlife safe and environmentally friendly conditions and then bought from the farmers at above-market rates. SUPPLIED

“We provide agronomic support to farmers which includes training and demonstrations on organic and wildlife-friendly standards and practices. We also help to conduct the required auditing and quality inspections to ensure organic compliance,” she says.

Concurrently, IRCC provides a guaranteed buyer, marketing expertise and premium international and domestic market access for rice produced according to these standards.

“At the center of this arrangement are conservation agreements with individual farmers that stipulate they will not engage in land clearing, logging, or wildlife poaching, nor use harmful agrochemicals on their fields. As their reward IRCC then purchases the rice produced according to these standards at premium prices. Farmers are paid up to 70% above market price for the compliance to organic and wildlife-friendly standards,” Teyaorm says.

The final product is IBIS Rice – a premium quality Jasmine rice that is sold domestically and internationally to consumers seeking environmentally and ethically responsible rice.

SMP has an internal control system they use to follow up with farmers regularly. In order to evaluate each farmer they have two ranks for them – either committee members or regular members. Committee members are those who have done the most outstanding work according to their evaluations.

They also serve as focal farmers that are in charge of reporting members if anyone is violating the rules the NGO set for them. Those who don’t follow the required standards are eliminated from the programme and no longer can access its benefits.

SMP hosted a provincial workshop on December 6, focusing on “research projects on the potential for sustainable development in the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary Community Protected Area and the results of the pilot project for the Community Wildlife Friendly Irrigation Pond”.

The workshop was attended by officials from the Ministry of Environment, the provincial administrator of Preah Vihear, local authorities, NGO partner organisations, community protected area representatives and Ibis rice farmers.

“The main objectives of this workshop were also to initiate a model for land-use decisions and establish partnerships for the development of protected area management plans. Secondly, it was to present the results of the Friendly Community Wildlife Rescue Pond Pilot Project,” Mas Teyaorm says.

Meas Ngem, deputy director of the Preah Vihear provincial department of environment, said at the workshop that Preah Vihear province has been working in partnership with SMP since 2009 to implement activities and links to improve community livelihoods through the Wildlife Friendly Rice Project.

“The presence of SMP and the WCS has contributed significantly to the improvement of community livelihoods in the protection of natural resources and sustainable conservation.

“Moreover, it has changed the community mindset from wildlife hunting to protecting the environment and wildlife. It also replaces the traditional occupations of the people here who would go to the forest and cut down trees and hunt wildlife, turning them into participants in agricultural production in the community through the Friendly Rice Project to save wildlife,” he says.

Testimony on how SMP’s projects impact farmers was given to The Post by Chhoeung Kheriya. She and her family live in Kam Penh Village, part of Kulen Prum Tep Wildlife Sanctuary in Preah Vihear. She’s in her 20s and has two kids. She joined as an Ibis rice farmer back in 2016 and she explained that the situation in her community back then was different compared to now.

“I am making a better profit now. Most of it is from the organic rice we grow. I am so happy that the prices we are offered are double the market price. That really motivates me and my husband to keep on going and continue to be part of wildlife conservation in our area.

“Since the rice is all organic, we can enjoy our meals without hesitation and I can see that we are healthier too, we don’t get sick much,” she said.

However, Ngem says one of the big problems for the farmers is the lack of irrigation systems for their production. With climate change, rainfall will become an unpredictable phenomenon in the future. That will impact people, wildlife, and the environment.

In response to problems like the recent droughts, SMP launched a new project “wildlife-friendly community irrigation ponds” to build ponds that would benefit both farmers and wildlife. The project will excavate two irrigation ponds in Tmatboey village and a pond in Prey Veng village.

Before the pond was created, SMP conducted an assessment and discussed it with WCS Cambodia and the Ministry of Environment regarding suitable locations for farmers as well as wildlife. SMP provides technical training to farmers on how to use the ponds in a way that does not harm wildlife.

Chhorn Chim – who has been living at Prey Veng Village since 2003, and has been a part of SMP’s projects since 2009 – says he is benefiting from the pond.

“For farmers, water is very important. Without water the crops will wither. In the past, the rain in the wet season was regular but now the rain is irregular and cultivation for farmers is difficult. I am so grateful that now when we face water shortages we can pump water to save the seedlings and rice, and the animals can use it when there is little rain.

“In my opinion the idea of conserving natural resources and wildlife has many purposes. We can be directly involved in conserving the natural resources of our ancestors and we can keep it and protect it for the next generation. I believe that the ponds project will bring greater benefits to the next generation as the climate is drastically changing,” Chhorn Chim adds.

Teyaorm says camera traps will also be used to assess which species of wildlife are using the ponds. Over the next year, SMP will monitor how ponds affect the harvesting outcome of farmers and the result will determine the project expansion across Cambodia.

“We envision a Cambodia where rural communities earn decent living incomes while actively preserving their biocultural heritage, protecting the integrity and composition of surrounding ecosystems and sustainably managing natural resource use,” Teyaorm says.

For further information SMP can be contacted via their Facebook page @sansommlupprey.