The Ministry of Environment has laid out a policy of protecting forests to generate income from carbon credit sales and eco-tourism, with rangers and forest community members in protected areas acting as the first line of defence.

The ministry said both are now helping boost eco-tourism and their own incomes by acting as guides to eco-tourists.

In Kampong Speu province’s Oral district, a 41-year-old man named Ry Rann understands well the value of trees.

The former logger turned his life around and is now dedicated to conservation of natural resources and protecting the environment in exchange for the income derived from eco-tourism.

A resident of the mountainous parts of Oral district, Rann used to generate his income mainly from collecting forest by-products and logging timber.

Back in the 1990’s, he collected amomum kravanh mushrooms and cut down trees until prominent American environmentalist Ben Davis – who had been granted Cambodian citizenship along with his family by a royal decree on January 26 in recognition of his 27 years of environmental protection – came to the district in 2000 and taught him a deeper understanding of the value of the forests and animals near his home.

Rann, the father of five children, is now a tour guide in the mountains and for some tourist sites in Kampong Chhnang province

“I started to guide tourists through the mountains and I started hiking in the woods once in a while in 2007 guiding plant researchers,” he said.

Then in 2017, Rann started a job guiding tourists on hikes through the forests and became a conservationist and part of the environmentalist movement.

“In my free time, I look for new places that have boulders and beautiful wild flowers. I take photos of them to advertise them to tourists who want to see them. I also remove snares to take them home with me when I see them and when Wildlife Alliance comes I turn them in to their organisation,” he said.

He added that he liked guiding tourists on hikes far more than his previous work. It is less income than logging but it’s a legal and safe job. Before, in addition to logging, he would harvest tree resins and make torches to sell.

“I was born to walk in the mountains. Though I’m now over 40, I can still hike in the forests like normal. If I don’t walk, I feel bored and I have nothing to do. I also take photos of animals and remove them from snares,” he said.

Protecting natural resources

Ry Rann is a member of the Khnong Veal community which is in the process of registering as a legally recognised forest community.

Former logger Ry Rann in Kampong Speu province’s Oral district. SUPPLIED

“The areas we allow to be designated as ecotourism areas fall into two categories. The areas are either the communities designated for natural tourism or natural protected areas where there is a nature park or wildlife sanctuary with tourism potential,” environment ministry secretary of state and spokesman Neth Pheaktra said.

He added that the Ministry of Tourism encouraged some other areas to be designated as ecotourist areas which are managed by forest communities because of the help they provide with protecting natural resources.

“They can generate more income for their communities. For example, the Thmat Beuy forest community, Chrok La Eang waterfall or Andong Kraloeng Ecotourism Community in Mondulkiri province. This is a new choice that we offered as a solution to reduce pressures on natural resources.

“It means providing new jobs and new incomes for people by making them reduce their logging of trees and hunting of animals,” Pheaktra said.

Before hiking in the mountains, Rann explains to tourists how to stay safe and behave responsibly in the wilderness and tells them what they should bring on their trip.

He tells them about the dangers and safety risks present in the forest, including which places they can sit down and relax.

Acting a bit like bodyguards, one guide must walk in front of the tourists and the other behind them.

Rann tells them not to bring along hard objects such as glass and instead use rubber bottles to avoid breaking them and they must carry all of their garbage with them and burn it when they return to civilisation.

“Even when logging wood for campfires, we do not cut down good wood. We use bamboo for starting a fire. As for canned fish, we burn them and then bury the cans. They will go rusty but the metal doesn’t cause problems for the environment,” he said.

“What we always must carry is water and cooked rice because they need to eat on the way and if we get separated from each other they will still have food on them. This is a preventive step, but we have never had the problem occur,” Rann added.

Additionally, environmental rangers could also play a role as potential guides in the natural protected areas.

‘Maintaining safety’

Ranger Loy Hangda in Ratanakkiri province who coordinates trips to the Virachey National Park said that environmental rangers have guided tourists on visits to mountainous regions and the Yak Yu fields and other community protected areas like the Yakkong Kriev mountain and the Yakke waterfall.

A tourist enjoys the view at Veal Chakyouk in Virachey National Park. PHIROM CHOUN

She added that Yak Yu Mountain does not attract much tourism because it is 50 km away from the Virachey National Park headquarters in Veun Sai district of the province.

It would take tourists five days of hiking to get there. Yakkong Kriev Mountain and Yakke Waterfall are situated in Taveng district’s Taveng Loeu commune in the province about 48km away.

“In general, we have the rangers and one guide take tourists out to these areas. It is normal for them to visit the protected areas. We must have the rangers going with them, who maintain the safety of tourists and they can even speak with the tourists in English,” she said.

Community members can generate income by helping tourists carry their belongings and cook food to serve them, because the area is a popular one with foreign tourists and they spend at least two to three days there.

“Currently, we have a lot of Cambodian tourists and the foreign tourists have just come one-by-one. However, we also limit the number of tourists to 10 maximum because we worry about environmental issues and their safety. Usually, in one week we get maybe two groups of tourists,” Hangda said.

The area has ecotourism attractions such as rowing, hiking, wildlife watching, camping in the forests, the Teuk Chuor Toeng Resort, indigenous cultures with events like traditional dances, lodging, boat services and food.

As part of the tourism industry, environmental rangers are allowed to act as guides in exchange for an additional income and to protect the safety of visitors.

“The environmental rangers are allowed to act as tour guides in the natural protected areas with the approval of the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Economy and Finance. As far as profits go they can take a $20 fee from visitors,” Pheaktra said.

“The reason we allow the rangers to act as tour guides is because they know the way and they know the situation in the natural protected areas with plants and other animals. And this provides additional income for the rangers,” he said.

He added that promoting eco-tourism was an important part of building the local economy and increasing people’s incomes.

Some eco-tourism communities work together with the rangers and this helps the rangers get to know the situation in the deeply forested areas better like in Virachey National Park, which has very difficult terrain that takes tourists three or four days to traverse.

“Acting as guides is just a side job, but it’s one that plays a core role in protecting, managing and conserving natural resources while assisting them with cracking down crimes, removing snares and collaborating with the communities in protected areas to patrol the forests,” Pheaktra said.