Conservationists sometimes find their efforts in protected areas at odds with indigenous rights.
KOH KONG PROVINCE
NEAK Samon waved her hand angrily over the soot-covered pit in front of her home. A few charred sticks and ashes were all that remained of a makeshift charcoal kiln.
In late February, forest rangers pulled up on motorbikes in her village and demanded that she destroy the kiln, she said. They told her it was located in a protected area in which no one was allowed to cut down trees.
“I was so angry,” she recalled. “I told them, ‘If you stop me from making charcoal, how can I cook for my family?’”
She said the rangers used hoes to break the kiln apart, and that flames from the burning wood leapt into the air as the hoes struck the mound. Neak Samon walked away fuming.
“I’m still angry today,” she said. “I didn’t cut this wood down in the forest. It was from dead trees. We do this and then the rangers call it illegal.”
Four other families in her village complained of the same treatment, for which they blamed rangers affiliated with the respected international NGO Wildlife Alliance.
The incident underlines a difficult question conservationists face in protecting threatened areas: How can they engage the people who already live there?
Neak Samon’s home sits along an old dirt logging road leading into the Areng Valley in the ecologically sensitive Cardamom Mountains.
It also happens to rest along the boundaries of the Central Cardamom Protected Forest (CCPF), a 400,000-hectare zone that the government created in 2002.
Conservationists see the Cardamoms as an ecological jewel. It is home to dozens of threatened species, including some that have become extinct elsewhere, as well as a vital watershed that supports hundreds of thousands of people downstream of its rivers.
But the CCPF is also home to more than 3,000 isolated villagers, many of them indigenous Khmer Daeum whose ancestors have lived in the forest for centuries.
In dealing with them, authorities have two choices: Offer a stick, or offer a carrot. Officials can tell the communities to stop using their ancestral forests outright, or work with them to end destructive commercial poaching and logging.
In the Areng Valley, authorities have chosen the latter.
As part of an agreement with the district, commune, Forestry Administration and the NGO Conservation International, which operates in the CCPF, villagers have agreed to stop clearing new forests as well as poaching wildlife. In return, they receive compensation roughly equivalent to the earnings they would have made from poaching.
Villagers can also earn money by taking part in patrols, which brings income to a community short on paying jobs.
“Enforcement alone is not enough to keep the mountain safe for future generations,” said David Emmett, Conservation International’s regional director. He also said that recent tensions have complicated the relationship with villagers.
Referring to the reported destruction of villagers’ kilns, he said: “Incidents such as this one will only ever make communities less willing to listen or engage in conversation, which sets back our entire agenda.”
Various officials from Wildlife Alliance were unavailable for comment this week. The NGO is one of several conservation groups working in the protected areas of Koh Kong. In the Cardamoms, such work has included partnering with authorities to patrol the area with the aim of stamping out the illegal logging of valuable timber.
The group has been lauded for helping to preserve sensitive areas and put a dent in destructive logging practices.
In Koh Kong’s Chi Phat commune for example, the NGO has launched a major reforestation drive and started up a sustainable ecotourism project that brings tourist dollars into the community.
Yet villagers in Thma Doun Pov say they have had arguments with rangers for several years.
“When the rangers come to us, it’s like they don’t care,” said Chet Tay, a member of the local commune council. “When they see someone cut down a tree, they stop us automatically. They don’t bother to talk to us to see whether what we are doing is allowed.”
In 2008, tensions flared when rangers burned down several newly built homes and cultivated rice fields, Chet Tay said.
“People were very angry. Some had knives and axes,” he said. “They wanted to kill the rangers, but they were afraid of the law. They wanted to kill the people who destroyed their homes.”
Cambodia’s Law on Forestry recognises the right of indigenous communities to use forest resources for their centuries-old customs, including collecting wood and using timber from designated areas to build homes.
The recent dispute with Wildlife Alliance made its way up to the governor of Koh Kong province, who said he believes the villagers have abided by the law.
“They have never destroyed forests for selling or doing big business,” said Governor Bun Leut, who characterised the tensions between villagers and the NGO-backed rangers as a misunderstanding.
“The rangers just want to preserve the forest to make sure villagers do not destroy it,” he said. “We have told them that the villagers are making charcoal kilns for their communities only.”
Villagers say they believe conservation efforts are vital, but recent tensions have also produced lingering suspicions in Thma Doun Pov.
Chet Tay said his constituents want the rangers to stay away.
“We don’t want the rangers to come here again,” he said.
“If this happens again, people may fall into violence. If the rangers return, they should come here for good purposes.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHHAY CHANNYDA