TAKEO - While massive logging contracts are being signed, threatening to devastate
Cambodia's forests, here in Takeo's Tramkak District, villagers are planting trees
to restore the natural forest - and are reaping the benefits.
One year after the villagers signed a contract with the government to create a "community
forest" of 500 hectares - to restore their local environment and their livelihood
- they claim that soil quality has improved, allowing them to grow more crops.
"The good soil is starting to come back," said Son Tok, 50, a farmer in
Prey Mouk village, who has three plots of land where he has been growing trees.
Tok said that the crop production this year is much better than in the last few years,
when it was crippled by infertile soils.
1,720 families from twelve villages around Prey Ler asked the government to grant
them ownership of the land in return for replanting trees, regenerating the natural
The villagers say that since the early 1980s the original forest in this area was
gradually destroyed by farmers clearing trees to grow crops, and cutting for fuelwood
and construction timber. They said that the both local authorities and villagers
did not care about the destruction, and slowly the forests disappeared from the province.
As the forests disappeared, the problems of villagers increased. Ngim Peng, chief
of the community forest area, said that several hectares of land in his communes
used to lie abandoned because of the poor quality of the soil and most of the wood
supplies had to be brought in from other provinces such as Kompong Speu and Kampot.
With the help of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a Canada-based NGO which works
in six provinces focusing on reforestation and agricultural management, the villagers
set about finding their own solution. The culmination of their efforts came in December
1994, when they signed a contract with the Agriculture Ministry's Department of Forestry
to replant the forests to serve local wood demand and recover the local natural environment.
The contract grants the villagers long-term tenure of their land, for up to 60 years,
if they continue to protect the forest. After this period, the lease may be extended,
or canceled if the government wants the land back. But in this case, the government
will have to compensate the villagers for the market value of all the trees.
For its part, the government not only gets land reforested, but also gains revenue
from the community forest: 20 percent of timber harvested for sale, and ten percent
of timber used by the villagers themselves.
Ngim Peng said that in 1993, the year the project started, the villagers planted
only about one tree for every five they had planned to plant. This year they will
reach their target of 250 hectares, mostly with "short term" fast-growing
trees, such as acacia. Some villagers have been planting acacia since 1993 and already
some trees stand up to six metres high.
Larry Groff, the MCC adviser for the Tramkak project, explained that acacia, although
not a native tree, grows very well in dry soils and will be useful to the villagers
in the short term, not only for fuelwood and construction but for providing shade
in which 'long-term' trees - such as teak - can thrive.
He said that the tree planting will occur in two phases: first short term trees (from
ten-15 years) and in the second phase, longer term trees, taking 70 years to mature,
to restore the natural forest cover.
Since 1994 the villagers have become self-sufficient in tree seedlings, which previously
they had to buy from other provinces. Now they have six nurseries with 30,000 trees
to distribute to villagers.
Peng explained that the ambitious project has not been without its difficulties.
In the first year, he was worried that his project would fail, and that the government
would then complain.
He added that it was difficult to educate the villagers at first because they didn't
understand about the importance of forests and the environment for their livelihoods.
"They cared only about their daily lives, what to eat... and that was all,"
He continued that MCC gave donations of rice and cash credit in order to solve the
villagers' short term economic problems, so that they could spare some time to plant
But now the benefits are being felt. Peng points to the previously-abandoned plots
of land, where a variety of crops are now thriving.
Son Tok added that most people in the province have great difficulty in finding enough
wood for fuel or construction and many poorer families have to resort to using straw
mixed with cow manure instead of firewood. But Tok said that now, thanks to the community
forest project, he and his villagers have a steady supply of fuelwood from cutting
branches from trees in the plantation.
Son Tok said that people in his village have become very aware of the value of the
forest and are keen to help protect it. The villagers have drawn up regulations to
protect the community forest, setting fines for anyone letting their domestic animals
destroy the trees, for cutting without permission, for hunting, or for burning forests
for any purpose.
"We are understanding about the problem of deforestation. We have restrictions
and regulations, and we will fine those who break them."
"I know that if we destroy the forests, it means we are destroying our livelihood."