In the words of a Cambodian proverb, "You don't have to cut down a tree to get at its fruit." Yet in rural communities around the world, people often have no choice but to do just that.
Several years ago in the Cambodian village of Chumnoab, limited economic opportunities were leading local people to regularly cut down forests for agriculture and hunt increasingly rare species for the illegal wildlife trade. When faced with the question of daily survival, conservation was simply not an option.
Local communities are unlikely to choose to protect ecosystems unless conservation efforts benefit them in concrete, measurable ways. Through the development of conservation agreements, Conservation International's (CI) Conservation Stewards Program and CI-Cambodia are empowering the people of Chumnoab and other communities in the Cardamom Mountains to make choices that protect critical resources while providing immediate investments in economic development.
Forest Destruction in the Cardamoms
Often described as one of Southeast Asia's last remaining stretches of wilderness, the forest-covered Cardamom Mountains provide a stronghold for species like the Critically Endangered Siamese crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis) while also sustaining human communities across much of western Cambodia. The mountains receive the highest rainfall in the country; multiple rivers cut through the region's deep rainforests and filter into the lowlands to sustain Tonle Sap Lake's seasonal fishery. The lake's floodplains also fuel year-round agricultural production that provides food for 3 million people.
When the agreement was finalized, the residents of Chumnoab agreed to protect the buffer zone of the Central Cardamoms Protected Forest – halting forest destruction in defined areas, ending illegal hunting and contributing to monitoring efforts. In return, CSP worked with CI-Cambodia to finance the purchase of water buffalos and farming equipment, as well as supplements to teacher salaries.
This interconnectedness of forest and freshwater ecosystems means that continued forest destruction in the mountains will not only take a toll on the livelihoods of communities like Chumnoab, but will also have other impacts downstream, including an increase in flooding during the wet season and drought in the dry season, a reduction in fishery yields and loss of ecotourism opportunities.
IN DEPTH: Freshwater, Biodiversity and People
How Conservation Agreements Work
CI's Conservation Stewards Program (CSP) began working in Cambodia in 2006, and is now working with CI-Cambodia to implement conservation agreements in six communities. These agreements are negotiated contracts with local people in which communities receive specific benefits in return for participating in conservation activities.
LEARN MORE: CI works with forest rangers in the Central Cardamoms
Conservation agreements are tailored to local conditions and needs. In Chumnoab, CSP first conducted an analysis to determine the value of what residents would forgo by halting deforestation and illegal hunting on their lands. CSP then met with community leaders to determine the most important development needs for their village.
LEARN MORE: Participatory Land Use Planning in Cambodia
When the agreement was finalized, the residents of Chumnoab agreed to protect the buffer zone of the Central Cardamoms Protected Forest (CCPF) – halting forest destruction in defined areas, ending illegal hunting and contributing to monitoring efforts. In return, CSP provided funding for the purchase of water buffalos and farming equipment, and the provision of teacher salaries.
Since the start of the project, Chumnoab community members have protected about 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres) and removed thousands of hunting snares from the forest. Under this increased protection, the local Siamese crocodile population has increased by more than 10 percent, and other threatened species – such as the white-winged duck (Cairina scutulata) and masked finfoot (Heliopais personatus) – have been observed returning to the area.
FEATURE: Rare Otter Rallies Conservation in Cambodia
Besides conservation benefits, there have been many other positive changes in Chumbnoab and other communities as a result of the conservation agreements, including:
- Access to improved farming methods and technology: Water buffalos and large tractors have helped farmers rehabilitate degraded rice paddies, eliminating the need to convert additional forest into farmland. In addition, farmers are using smaller tractors known as mechanical mules to maintain the paddies, as well as for transportation and providing electricity for special community events.
- Education: by providing a reliable salary supplement for 13 teachers in the region, CSP has helped to keep nearby schools staffed year-round, greatly enhancing educational opportunities for local children.
- New sources of income: To ensure that the villages' conservation commitments are being enforced, community members regularly patrol the forests and monitor the presence of key species. By spreading out these duties across the community, many families can share in the benefits (monitors are paid a daily stipend).
- Strengthening governance: Through organized joint patrolling efforts, the communities have strengthened their relationship with local forest authorities, responsible for protection of the Cardamoms.
Expanding Conservation Stewardship
CSP and CI-Cambodia intend to build on the success of Chumnoab and other villages in Cambodia by developing a trust fund that can provide long-term funding for protection of the Cardamoms.
"CSP and CI-Cambodia have demonstrated how the conservation agreement model provides a highly effective tool for integrating local communities into protected area management while improving human well-being," says Eduard Niesten, the interim director of the Conservation Stewards Program.
"Now the challenge is to secure long-term financing for these agreements, so the CCPF Trust Fund is one of our highest priorities. The trust fund offers an inspiring opportunity for the global community to support conservation of unique biodiversity in partnership with local communities."