It’s Sunday today and yet I was on duty.
One prospective donor from USA is in town and so as the person in charge of grants and fundraising activities, I coordinated his visit to the project sites and “chaperoned” him together with A, the other expat Advisor.
It has been almost a year since I last visited the site, specifically Chambok Eco-tourism site. When I assumed advisory position, it was seldom that I go to the field as almost all of the time I was confined to my room, forever tapping the keyboards coming out only when donor reports and proposals are completed and only when there are outside office donor meetings. So today, I hauled off my pampered, fat behind for a whole day tour of the project site.
Kampong Speu province is popular among the locals for it houses the 35,000-hectare Kirirom National Park, one of Cambodia’s seven national parks. The park is known for its biodiversity and natural resources of national and global significance and is known for its unique native pine forests (photo, Mlup Baitong). The resource issues surrounding the Park have led to violent disputes between Park authorities and local people. This is where we are working for the past 6 years now, addressing natural resource management issues with villagers living along the borders of the national Park.
The national road number 2, which starts from Phnom Penh to Kampong Speu, and which stretches up to the beach city of Sihanoukville, was recently repaired and widened making the travel more convenient. However, I couldn’t imagine how many families living along this road have been forced out to give way to the road widening project. The government and its contractor must have provided compensation and resettlement benefits to the affected families because not much opposition has been reported or heard of. Or did I just miss this issue somehow? The commuting public, including our Kampong Speu field staff, are now complaining of the sudden fare hikes attributed to the toll fees collected by the contractor’s company. I digress.
One of Mlup Baitong’s projects addressing unsustainable resource use is the promotion of alternative, environment-friendly livelihoods through the Ecotourism project. This project aims to support sustainable livelihoods for rural villagers through ecotourism development. Chambok commune lies to the northern border of Kirirom National Park, which lies approximately 120 km southwest from Phnom Penh.
According to Mlup Baitong’s food security survey conducted in April 2003, there is high dependency on forest resources and 94% of the population are involved in forest resource extraction activities. The unsustainable harvesting of timber for fuelwood is leading to the rapid degradation of the forest resources both inside and outside the national park. Hunting of large mammals, some endangered, is also a significant problem. Some 93 percent of villagers grow crops, but production is low and the majority of food for a household requires purchasing. The forest is the main source of income for 57 percent of the population. Food insecurity is experienced by up to 70 percent of households in at least one month of the year. Some 20% are experiencing food shortages throughout the year and 63% were in debt at the time of the survey (April, 2003).
There are few options for rural people to improve their livelihoods, and low levels of education, particularly for women, combined with disintegration of the community and of many families as a result of past conflicts, makes it difficult for many people to overcome hardships.
The Chambok Community-based Ecotourism project has already been underway since 2002, and the site officially opened to the public in January 2003. The villagers participate directly in the project since the local elected Chambok Ecotourism Sub-Committee manages the day-to-day activities of the enterprise. Benefits accrue not only to the villagers who work at the site, but also to the village as a whole, since profits are kept in a Community Fund and spent according to the development needs in the village.
So we arrived about 11noon in Chambok, and since it was almost lunchtime we stopped at the house of the Community Forestry Committee Leader where our lunch, prepared by the women members of the Gender project, was waiting for us. The donor feasted on local fare – mixed vegetables, grilled fish and mango salad. This is one of the many unique offerings at the Ecotourism site, for visitors to sample a slice of the local fares and experience community life.
After lunch, we then headed to the Ecotourism site where we were greeted by trained local guides and some Ecotourism committee officers, including women’s group members, who were on (vending) duty on that day. There were lots of smiles and both visitors and locals exchanged satook (hands held in front of the chest, palms facing inward like in a prayer) and of Soksapbay and Chum riep soos and Hello, how are you, I’m fine, thank you greetings. I find the satook gesture very polite and the way the Khmers do it, they do it gracefully. These guides and committee officers received English language and guiding skills training and their capacities are continuously being built through training and coaching.
The sun was at its hottest, around 38-39C on a noon time. However this did not deter the donor from going on to see what’s in the site, much to my chagrin. Haha. From the entrance gate it is more than 2km hike up to the waterfalls passing through a choice of trails. The group decided to ride an ox-cart (photo, Mlup Baitong) for about 10,000 riels return trip ($2.50) with Sy, the local guide, in command, while I chose to go ride one of the bikes that was for rent. For only 5,000 riels ($1.25), one can use the bicycle up to sawa (as long as you want).
Along the way, we passed by the area where the Visitor Information Center is being constructed. Because of funding problems, the construction was delayed. But thanks to generous support from donors, the Visitor Center is slowly taking shape. We found Touch Morn, the head of the Ecotourism committee monitoring the construction activities. Touch Morn is one of the many locals who are aware of the environmental threats that logging and charcoal production (the primary source of income in that area) and is leading his community in protecting their tuntien tomachit and pakrithan, or natural resources and environment.
Since its opening in early 2003, more than 10,000 combined foreign and local tourists visited the ecotourism site in Chambok. The site, one of the country’s first, provided an alternative source of income to the villagers, from ticket sales, oxcart rides, bicycle rentals, parking, vending and toilet fees and small donations. The site offers a spectacular waterfall, bat cave, bird-watching, traditional dance and music performance by the schoolchildren, and a walk through nature trails. The project now employs more than 50 local people working at the site and receiving wages from the community fund. The project also benefited members of the Women’s Project from the income generated from selling produce at the ecotourism site.
– Mlup Baitong Report
While on the hike trail passing through thick and arid forest, bamboo forest mostly, Sy and Touch Morn would stop upon spotting a bird that makes a funny sound, a vine that is used for making baskets, a tree which leaves and bark have medicinal values, and plants and some insects that were eaten by the locals when food was scarce during the dark days of Pol Pot regime. We also passed by a spirit house where locals pray for protection, an ordained tree (tree that has been wrapped by saffron robe and blessed by a monk), some animal tracks. Where before not a sighting was observed, locals told us that they occasionally hear of the sound of damrey (elephants) and find a’ek roboh damrey (elephant dung), and see a pair of chluk, or deer, in the forest recently. It’s a good sign that wildlife is coming back now.
We reached the waterfall area, but it was dry. Drought has been a major problem in the country and Kampong Speu is one of the provinces in the country that has been experiencing extended drought period. The lack of seasonal rain dried up not only land and crops and plants of the villagers, but also the waterfall that is the main attraction in the site and source of drinking water for most of the villagers. However, Touch Morn and Sy are optimistic that there will be rain soon and the waterfall will have water. There were a few visitors, but Touch Morn said they are expecting droves of visitors come Khmer New Year (in a week’s time).
Drought aside, it’s amazing to see the progress at the site. The once shy local guides can now carry a hearty conversation, even nijiey lieng (bantering) with the foreigners. The women vendors now talk with confidence, and have now expanded their ‘business’ from merely selling fruits and rice cakes and souvenir items, to bicycle and umbrella rentals, to food preparation and catering. To the adventurous type, the guides offer a hike through the jungle bringing you up to the source of the waterfalls amidst the thick forest covers and steep slopes. An overnight camping is also possible, either visitors bring their own tents, or avail of the home-stay program in the community, with accommodation for an over-night stay up to a few days. Weekend visitors are likely to see schoolchildren performing traditional dance and music.
Since business ventures and activities have expanded and diversified, revenues support village development projects such as regular weekly forest patrols, building simple infrastructures like nature trails, toilet and changing rooms for site visitors, which are decided by an elected village committee, which is also in charge of management of site, and meets at least once a month to discuss various issues.
By establishing a community-based ecotourism in the country, there is an incentive for the community to sustainably manage the natural resources which are the main attraction to the site, and an alternative source of income is generated that will reduce dependence on natural resources extraction. Another important benefit is an increase in awareness of environmental issues among the community and the visitors who come to the site. There are very few places in Cambodia where people can go to gain an understanding of the nature and culture of the area.
So if any of you (granting that I have readers) are visiting Cambodia one of these days, the Angkor Wat in Siem Reap is not the only place to go. Please visit us at Chambok Ecotourism site. You will be helping not only the villagers, but also supporting the community’s initiative to protect their natural resources and environment. Touch Morn and local guide Sy will be glad to see you there. We hope to see you there. Soum chuop kinih pael kraoy.