Koh Kong province
The helicopter circled over the Cardamom Mountains, gliding past the rivers and greenery in what is one of Cambodia’s best protected forests.
From the air, staff from the conservation NGO Wildlife Alliance surveyed the landscape, searching for any encroachments within the forest and noting the geographic coordinates with GPS units.
With these coordinates in hand, WA staffers joined Forestry Administration rangers and military police on November 12, 2009, on an expedition in Koh Kong province’s Thma Bang district.
There, in the district’s Chi Phat commune, they encountered nine families who had built huts and cleared tracts within the forest to plant rice.
The teams issued warnings to the families, according to an internal WA report, telling them to dismantle their huts and abandon the fields within seven days. Five other unoccupied structures at the site were dismantled and burned to the ground.
Since arriving in Koh Kong in the early 2000s, Wildlife Alliance has been an aggressive force for forest protection, developing alternative livelihood programmes for villagers while at the same time working with law enforcement officials to crack down on environmental crimes.
Poaching and logging have long been problems in the area and continue to be issues for the ranger teams, as are illegal land sales by local officials.
Yet while businessmen and corrupt officials have done much to drive deforestation in the area, villagers who engage in slash-and-burn farming or otherwise exploit the environment for survival are also targeted, their property seized or their homes dismantled if they are found to be in violation of forestry laws.
Episodes like the one in Thma Bang are indicative of the challenges WA has faced as it works to protect the Cardamoms while engaging with local communities, amid questions about who bears responsibility for the effort and whether all residents are benefiting from the conservation push.
“Southwest Cambodia would be a lot more deforested without Wildlife Alliance,” said David Emmett, regional director of Conservation International.
“The key issue that Wildlife Alliance and all conservation NGOs need to remember is understanding that an area that right now is blanket forest as far as the eye can see – this is Cambodia’s territory,” he added. “It’s not ours.”
In 2002, much of the Southern Cardamoms was “like a war zone”, Wildlife Alliance CEO Suwanna Gauntlett said.
Dozens of man-made forest fires were being set every day, while poached elephants, bears and other animals were fuelling a robust illegal wildlife trade.
Nine years later, this trade has been brought under control – Gauntlett said just one elephant had been killed in the area in the past five years – and dozens of families that formerly engaged in slash-and-burn farming have come out of the forest to join WA-sponsored projects.
In 2007, Wildlife Alliance began an ecotourism project in Chi Phat commune that has been growing consistently and in 2009 provided 156 families with skills training and modest incomes. A similar ecotourism community is planned for nearby Trapaing Roung, with 122 of the 503 families in the commune attached to the project.
Near the Chi Phat ecotourism community is a village and community agriculture project known as Sovanna Baitong that houses roughly 190 families.
For villagers who are not involved in these projects, however, the WA presence has not always been positive.
Wildlife Alliance has foreign advisers and local staff who work at stations in Koh Kong alongside Forestry Administration rangers and military police.
Gauntlett emphasised that it is the FA rangers and military police who make determinations on seizures of property and the dismantling of homes.
“We don’t do law enforcement,” she said.
“It’s the government doing it, with our technical support.”
This support, she said, includes mapping and photographing structures built illegally on forest land as well as assistance in building legal cases and following up with the courts.
A foreigner who formerly served as a WA adviser said via email, however, that WA staff typically took a lead role in directing the enforcement teams and dismantling structures.
“We always were very aggressive,” the man said, a sentiment echoed by other former WA staff in background interviews.
“Suwanna puts the pressure on advisers. She already [said] to all of us, ‘If you can’t dismantle this house, you cannot continue to work for us.’”
In addition to dismantling illegal structures, enforcement teams also intercept poachers and confiscate illicit wildlife catches.
Emmett said that this work had greatly reduced illegal forest clearance and hunting, but that there had been incidents in which enforcement teams with WA advisers had confiscated the wares of villagers, such as tree resin, that the villagers are legally permitted to collect.
“There have been occasions where confiscations have occurred and when, when it’s been investigated further … it’s actually been found that the communities are allowed to do it according to their traditional user rights as defined in the Forestry Law,” he said.
“If we try to implement the law either without fully understanding it or without understanding local context and traditional rights, in the long term we can lose the goodwill of the very people whose livelihoods rely on sustaining the forests that we are trying to protect.”
The dismantling of illegal structures is typically a less ad hoc affair, with enforcement teams warning residents seven days in advance before returning to carry out the action.
The process has at times been contentious, however.
In one January 2009 incident, WA staff set off from Koh Kong’s Sre Ambel town with Forestry Administration rangers for a new village that had cropped up recently in the forest.
From January to February, the teams dismantled more than 40 huts in the area and burned a number of them.
At one point, according to an internal WA report, a senior Forestry Administration official in the province happened upon the teams and commended their work.
The official returned in a panic several hours later, however, reporting that several villagers whose homes had been burned had complained to local rights group Adhoc.
The official “ordered us to burn everything, not [leaving] any trace of the village”, a Wildlife Alliance staffer wrote in the report.
Gauntlett said enforcement was an integral part of the conservation effort, calling land encroachment “the biggest driver of deforestation” in the area.
“You wouldn’t see somebody coming and building something in your national park or in Yellowstone Park,” she said. The majority of the structures destroyed, she added, are not actually homes.
“These are temporary structures, they’re not anything definitive, and these structures are put in place to monitor illegal crops, they’re put there to grab land – it’s specifically for illegal activities,” she said.
Others disputed this characterisation of the huts, however, including a Cambodian former staff member of WA who said the structures are in most cases primary residences.
“It’s a house for living – ask them. They live there, they sleep there,” he said.
The foreign ex-WA staffer compared the organisation’s presence in the area to that of an occupying army, saying that while the group was “good sometimes for nature protection”, he was uncomfortable with his own role in dismantling and burning homes.
“I don’t know if we really violate human rights, but for sure, sending complete families on roads, burning their houses with their belongings isn’t really fair,” he said.
“The few things they have, for us is nothing, but for them it’s everything.”
Out of the forest
WA is aware of the issue and has reached out to families living in the forest.
Built on either side of an unsealed track off National Road 48, Sovanna Baitong looks like any other rural village in Cambodia.
People live in simple wooden huts raised off the ground, and business owners run kiosks selling mobile phone cards and cold drinks.
WA established Sovanna Baitong village in 2004 as a site where families were promised a 1.5-hectare plot of land – and a land title in five years – along with tools and seeds to grow their own crops with help from trained agricultural technicians.
The aim was to offer people a profitable alternative to slash-and-burn farming, a place where families could grow food to feed themselves and sell at local markets. In addition, WA established a school for the families that live in the village.
“The positive is 370 children are going to school every day, all these families have access to healthcare. We’re meeting most of the [UN] Millennium [Development] Goals,” Gauntlett said.
But numerous problems have plagued the site, known within Wildlife Alliance as the Community Agriculture Development Project, since day one.
“It’s a very nice idea, but it’s not done so well,” said the Cambodian employee, who was responsible for recruiting villagers to the project.
The CADP inhabitants came voluntarily and signed contracts agreeing to work when they arrived.
While they have benefited from having been united in a community with easier access to education and healthcare, many say they feel trapped in a state of indentured servitude, holding out for the promised land titles and unable to return to their old way of life.
“Everyone is hopeless because we have no right to own our own land even though we have grown fruit and vegetables on that land,” one man said.
“Villagers want to own land with land titles because we traded land with [WA] and we can’t go back to where we lived.”
An internal report documenting a visit in December 2007 by an official of the Asian Development Bank, a project donor, notes “how much control the CADP had over the daily activities of the CADP families”.
The report details how families are rationed rice each month, while purchases of farm equipment and fertilisers must be approved by project staff, “thus creating dependency while reducing sustainability”.
Outsiders are also subject to control in the form of restricted access to the project, the former Cambodian WA employee said. During a recent visit to Sovanna Baitong, reporters speaking with villagers outside their homes were accosted by two Wildlife Alliance employees on motorbikes and asked to report to the main project office prior to being escorted off the site.
Gauntlett said a degree of control was necessary, particularly in the early stages of the project, to keep it up and running.
“These are the pains of growing up,” she said. “It’s not an enclave.”
Some families have enjoyed success growing crops including cucumbers, maize and jackfruit, though others said they had struggled within an environment they described as coercive and unsympathetic.
Although the CADP has supplied ploughing machinery, the Cambodian employee said foreign project manager Gi-lad Chen often refused to allow villagers to use these resources. Many thus had to plough the land with hand tools, leading to further discontent amid already low levels of production.
Some villagers described a daily routine in which they were threatened with expulsion from their land or loss of rice rations if they did not work the plots they had been allocated. The Cambodian employee said Chen even resorted to trying to stop inhabitants from playing cards in an effort to get them to work harder.
“Now they are stricter than before in cultivating land for growing vegetables,” said one 41-year-old woman living in Sovanna Baitong.
“If someone goes away for a week, they will take their land back, so how can villagers make money?”
Frustrations in the village reached a climax in 2007, with protests breaking out against the CADP management and Chen in particular.
Former WA employees and villagers gave different reasons behind the unrest, but most cited mismanagement, overwork and coercive practices initiated by Chen.
A number of villagers compared the perceived forced labour in Sovanna Baitong to what they had endured during the rule of Pol Pot.
“I experienced three years and eight months of the Khmer Rouge regime, and I think this is similar because they ordered us to work like we are in a totalitarian state,” said one 47-year-old male inhabitant. “It is really miserable to live there.”
WA denied repeated requests to interview Chen about conditions at CADP, though WA chief communications officer John Maloy said the “short-lived” protests were tied more to issues of land ownership, as property prices climbed and villagers sought to take advantage.
“There were individuals at Sovanna Baitong village who at the time were clamouring for direct ownership of their land in the hope of selling it,” he said.
Gauntlett subsequently intervened directly with villagers “to build a community consensus” and work through problems related to “new and unfamiliar” farming methods recently introduced in the village, including an irrigation system.
Within two weeks, these problems were resolved, Maloy added, with the village then holding a Buddhist ceremony to draw a line under the discontent.
But some villagers say their dissatisfaction has never dissipated, with many complaining that they still have not received the land titles they were promised for staying in the village five years. Seven years after the project began, none have received them.
Gauntlett said that villagers will not receive land titles until the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries legally converts the area into a social land concession, a process she described as “very slow” and in the hands of the government.
Officials at the MAFF said this week that they did not know the status of the proposal.
WA figures show that average monthly incomes per household climbed from US$94 per month at the end of 2009 to $100 per month from February to April last year, though some villagers complain of low productivity and incomes barely above subsistence level.
Gauntlett said the “majority” of families were making at least $40 per month, though she acknowledged that some had struggled.
“There is a percentage of families that are not very keen on agriculture,” she said. “You can bring the cow to water, but you can’t drink for it.”
Having grown and supplied seedlings to an adjacent sugar cane plantation owned by ruling party Senator Ly Yong Phat, some villagers said they had resorted to working on the plantation for 10,000 riel per day.
Others leave the site to work as fishermen or motorbike taxi drivers.
The Cambodian former staff member said the families he recruited would consistently complain to him about the coercive conditions.
“The people in the village? Of course they are not happy,” he said, adding that word had spread around Koh Kong about the CADP as he made his pitch to residents outside the project.
“Why come to this communist village? I don’t want to go back to the Pol Pot regime,” villagers often responded, he said.
The future of the project remains unclear.
Maloy said it had made “excellent progress”, adding that plans to expand the CADP were contingent on further funding.
Wildlife Alliance also hopes to continue developing its ecotourism sites, and plans are in the works to establish a “carbon sink” in the forest under the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation programme.
In the meantime, Gauntlett said WA remains committed to stopping the “circle of destruction” in the Southern Cardamoms. Engaging with local residents is a part of the strategy, though she acknowledged that not all of these people would be on board with the effort.
“Sometimes you can’t help everybody,” she said. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY TIVEA KOAM AND MOM KUNTHEAR