A wildlife ranger rides an elephant in Srey Pok Wildlife Sanctuary in Mondulkiri province in this file photograph.
FOR the poorest rural Cambodians, the forest acts as a safety net, providing a variety of products they could not otherwise afford.
If not managed, exploitation of forests in the eastern plain provinces of Mondulkiri and Ratanakkiri could push communities there over the brink, according to Seng Teak, country director of the conservation group WWF.
The provinces are home to some of the country's poorest communities - including hill tribe minority groups that have largely remained outside the market economy and the gains it has made - that depend on their natural surroundings for survival.
Government and WWF officials met in Mondulkiri's capital, Sen Monorom, Thursday to commend two community-protected areas in the Mondulkiri province covering 3,000 hectares.
The nearly 300 households in the villages of Sre Thom Mleung and Ronous Khnhen in the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary have been part of a nearly one-year-old project that allows them to extract resources such as rattan and honey in limited amounts as long as they abstain from
logging and abrasive slash-and-burn agricultural practices.
"We're promoting subsistence use," said Bas van Helvoort, conservation program manager for WWF.
Communities there are in a fragile state that could be shattered by anticipated climate changes, he warned.
"Computer models show the area becoming warmer and dryer, and a rise of extreme events weather patterns," he said.
Such conditions could prove devastating, he said: "reduced water for crops, increased risk of fire ... and drying-up the small ponds ... that are vital sources of water for villagers."
Living in extreme isolation, many communities in the area would not know how to change their primitive agriculture practices to accommodate the environmental change, he said.
His concern comes on the heels of a stern warning last month that climate change could prove particularly disastrous for Cambodia's eastern plains.
Mondulkiri province ranked as the most susceptible area to climate change in Southeast Asia, after the Indonesian capital Jakarta, according to a recent report by a Singapore-based research group.
The report, released February 2 and prepared by the Economy and Environment Program for Southeast Asia, identified Mondulkiri as the 4th-most vulnerable of 530 administrative zones assessed throughout Southeast Asia. Ratanakkiri ranked 6th.
Unlike other parts of Southeast Asia that are repeatedly pounded by flooding, earthquakes and hurricanes, among other devastating natural disasters whose frequency is linked with climate change, Cambodia's northeastern provinces have remained relatively unexposed to such shocks, said Arief Anshory Yusef, one of the report's authors.
Their vulnerability - and that of Cambodia, in general - stemmed largely from an inability to adapt to climate-related threats, and not the severity of the risks themselves, he said.
In the study, Ratanakkiri and Mondulkiri received the lowest and second-lowest scores, respectively, in the ability of people there to adjust to environmental changes - dismal rankings that correlated with their ranking as the 3rd- and 4th-poorest areas in the region, respectively.
An official with the Climate Change Department at the Ministry of Environment, who asked not to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media, said the government had not studied the vulnerability of Mondulkiri or Ratanakkiri to climate change.
"We have been conducting a report for the last two years on the effect of greenhouse gases on Cambodia," he said. "We hope to finish the report by the end of this year."
Pains of land development
Development workers in the eastern plains have echoed predictions of imminent trouble, saying land development and land speculation have degraded the area's environment at an alarming rate.
Bill Herod of Village Focus Cambodia, who works with indigenous Phnong minority youth in Sen Monorom, said land acquisitions - whether through aggressive purchasing or illegal grabs - are expediting environmental degradation by pushing off the land the Phnong, whose modest lifestyles have traditionally put little pressure on their habitats.
"There's been a devastating impact on the area's ecosystem over the last few years," he said. "When people buy land, one of the first things they do is clear it of trees.
"It's an extremely remote area, and it's difficult for indigenous groups here to cope with any changes to their lives," he added.
Jack Highwood, who works in Mondulkiri with the Bunong ethnic group, also sees the situation as dire.
"Mondulkiri is currently experiencing an unprecedented level of deforestation due to the sale of land to companies foreign and domestic, organised land-grabbing and the knee-jerk reactions of the Bunong peoples," he said.
He said development pressures have led the Bunong to clear-cut their land and sell it before it is appropriated without compensation.
The loss of their land and forests is pushing the group, which still relies on primitive farming and hunting and gathering, to the brink - and a change in climate, by changing their livelihoods, would surely push them over the edge, he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SAM RITH