NGO officials say move will cut down on deforestation and provide revenue opportunities to those caring for the land.
Local government officials handed over control of some 15,000 hectares of forest land to communities in Kampong Thom.
SOME 15,000 hectares of Kampong Thom forest were officially handed over Friday to local communities as a 15-year social land concession that development officials say will reduce exposure to deforestation and offer residents a new stream of income.
The agreement gives ownership of the land to 32 communities comprised of some 4,000 families. It represents the culmination of years-long negotiations between the government, NGOs and area residents.
Cambodia's forest cover has been severely depleted over the past couple of decades from large-scale logging concessions as well as pervasive illegal logging practices.
Development groups involved in the handover say forests in the hands of local communities have fared better than forests on public land or unregulated private land.
"[Villagers] have the most to gain and the most to lose from what happens to the forests they depend upon," said Yam Malla, executive director of Regional Community Forestry Training Centre. "They are the most willing and most able to invest time, effort and their considerable human resources to ensure the forest is protected and well managed."
The government says villages can renew the 15-year lease on the land.
The prakas establishing the community forests puts a five-year moratorium on any resource extraction from the land. Afterwards, villagers must propose sustainable commercial harvesting plans to the Forestry Administration for approval.
"The communities can harvest the forest's resources responsibly and in a sustainable manner, and can invest money earned in infrastructure projects such as education, irrigation, clean water and health services," said Yam Malla.
James Brampton, the centre's country director, is pushing for the land to be commercialised in fewer than five years so villagers do not have to wait so long for the income benefits to materialise.
If communities aren't seeing benefits, he argues, their motivation for protecting the forest will be weakened.
In his speech on Friday, Lun Cham, representing the 32 communities as Community Forest Management chairman, stressed that villagers must abstain from exploitative extraction if they are to be allowed to hold on to the land. Indeed, Ty Sokun, director general of the Forestry Administration, warned the villagers who break the terms of the deal by selling plots or engaging in resource extraction before the moratorium will have their land taken back and be punished in court.
Ty Sokun said the Kampong Thom concession could be the beginning of a much broader project. He promised a total of 2 million hectares of Cambodian forest to community forestry, although he did not specify a timeline. Such a plan would put 20 percent of the country's forests into the hands of local communities, according to Brampton, adding that currently the figure stands at just 3 percent.