By Nick Beresford, country director, and Moeko Saito Jensen, policy specialist, at the United Nations Development Programme in Cambodia.
When was the last time you connected with the natural world?
Perhaps you live in the city and it may have been a while since you last walked through a forest or swam in a lake. It is all too easy in an increasingly urban world to live without actually touching or feeling the natural world. And if we don’t, and we become increasingly detached from nature, there is a danger we start to care less. A slow disconnect is almost imperceptible, and all the more dangerous for that.
This is why the theme for this year’s World Environment Day – connecting people to nature – is so important. Next time you head off to Sihanoukville, stop off at Preynub forest. Buy some fresh crab from the local community, hire a boat for an hour and go around one of the world’s best preserved mangrove forests.
Or if you’re up in Siem Reap, take a trip up to Kulen Mountain National Park. Walk through one of the archaeological protected areas and feel that sense of wonder as a forest track opens up to reveal a beautiful temple, older than the ones at Angkor Wat. There are no crowds of tourists around these temples. Even better, consider a home stay in the village, and after a walk through the forest, relax and enjoy some superb home cooked food.
Amazing through these experiences are, there is a darker side. If you get off the boat in Preynub mangrove forest and walk in a little you might hit a flotilla of garbage that is sometimes washed into the mangroves. When exploring Kulen National Park, you may come across an illegal solid-waste dump. Also you may notice that though the forest is beautiful it is devoid of any large trees. These were illegally cut years ago. These sometimes jarring reminders make us aware how great the threat is to what remains of our natural world.
The connection to nature and to communities whose livelihoods depend on these natural resources, has given rise to some beautiful ideas. Elinor “Lin” Ostrom won a Nobel Prize in Economics without once taking an economics class, and if that wasn’t impressive enough she also gave us a set of models and ideas on how we can better preserve natural resources and let local communities take control. Before Ostrom, conventional economics gave us the “tragedy of the commons”, that states that each member of a local community will seek to maximise her return and so collectively the community destroys the resources upon which it depends. We see this in over fishing, destruction of wildlife and forests. The only solution is strong top down rule of law.
Ostrom didn’t just sit in an economic department, she spent time living and learning in communities who depended on natural resources to survive. What she found was that communities often live in blissful ignorance of the law of economics and successfully manage their resources. One such community, the lobster fishermen of the US state of Maine, had evolved a complex system of sharing lobster grounds to ensure everyone got a fair share, but that collectively they did not overfish and kept a plentiful supply of mature lobsters. One of her students did the same on the island of Bali, showing that a 1,000-year-old Hindu system of water management, produced a far better rice crop than the modern system that had been introduced by authorities.
The government relented and Bali returned to its ancient Hindu water management system – and a much bigger rice harvest.
In Preynub forest, the communities there can show you how they are replanting mangroves to protect their homes from storm surges and to maximise their harvest of crab, fish and mussels, all of which sell at a premium in Sihanoukville. Not only that, but the community successfully fought off a land grab and have now extended the size of the forest, with the help of the Department of Fisheries. On Kulen Mountain the Ministry of Environment helped the community return land to the forest protected areas and with the community to reforest the land. Lin Ostrom would be proud!
When Ostrom first published her research, the economics professors were appalled. This violated their laws. To which the supporters of Lin Ostrom replied with a new law, “Ostrom’s law”: A resource arrangement that works in practice can work in theory.
If we spend some time connecting with nature and with communities who depend on those natural resources, we can free our minds, and come back with a deeper appreciation of our fragile natural world. Cambodia is full of natural wonders: celebrate this World Environment Day and make that connection.