For hundreds of years, Cambodia's indigenous Khmer Daeum traditional communities native to the Cardamom Mountains existed harmoniously with their tropical forest home. Then, in 1975, communist Khmer Rouge guerillas seized power in Cambodia. Thousands of Khmer Daeum living in the Cardamom Mountains were driven from their homes, becoming slaves on Khmer Rouge collective farms. An estimated 3 million Cambodians died over the next four years, and thousands more perished as the nation plunged into 14 years of war with neighboring Vietnam.
More than a decade after hostilities ended, Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries on Earth, its people struggling to rebuild their lives. Many live as their forefathers did, following traditions of hunting and farming that once sustained both their communities and the forest around them. But the world of the Khmer Daeum is changing, as it has for Cambodians throughout the country. In the small village of Tatai Leu, everyone remembers the days when the hills were full of Sambar deer (Cervus unicolor), muntjac (Muntiacus muntjac), and multitudes of birds. In recent years, those same hills have offered less and less, as soldiers, timber companies, and other profiteers began to exploit the forest. When villagers returned to their homeland in the late 1990s, many had to work on logging crews or hunt tigers (Panthera tigris) and elephants (Elephas maximus) for the illicit wildlife trade. They had few other choices to survive, since their original way of life had been destroyed.
When CI and partner scientists assessed Cambodias ecological health in 2000, they found that decades of both legal and illicit logging had damaged much of the country's lowland forests and threatened the remaining wilderness of the Cardamom Mountains. If the timber trade wasn't halted, Cambodia would lose some of its greatest natural resources forever. The Khmer Daeum would also lose their ancestral home and traditional forest culture.
A turning point came in 2002 when, on the basis of CI scientific data, the Royal Cambodian Government decided to protect a swath of the Cardamoms that became known as the Central Cardamoms Protected Forest (CCPF). But while government troops patrolled the park and kept loggers and poachers away, it was soon clear that enforcement alone would not be enough to keep the mountains safe for the future. For CI's Sarah Milne, the solution to this problem was obvious. The Khmer Daeum were living there for generations, and they knew more about the forest than anyone, she explains. Bringing them into the conservation process made perfect sense.
But conservation had to make sense to the Khmer Daeum too, both spiritually and economically. Milne and her CI-Cambodia team tackled this challenge in 2003 by designing an innovative approach to forest management and conflict resolution. The Participatory Land Use Planning (PLUP) process is intended to put the Khmer Daeum in charge of the conservation and management of their natural resources, as well as to secure their resource rights. The planning process initially analyzes how the Khmer Daeum use their land and identifies what practices are unsustainable. When PLUP data showed Milne that some villagers were fishing in one of the very few lake habitats of the Critically Endangered Siamese crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis), for example, action was taken to help them find alternative sources of food and income.
We call it opportunity costs of conservation, and it lets us figure out how much it will cost local people not to fish in crocodile habitat, explains Jim Peters of the Conservation Stewards program. We work out a formula with the people to find an appropriate incentive to supplement fishing and allow crocodile conservation.
The PLUP process also identified rice paddies that had been abandoned during the Khmer Rouge period. These have been revitalizedor deep ploughedby tractors bought with funds from CI and its partners, providing a powerful alternative to slash-and-burn agriculture. PLUP also encourages better governance, locally and nationally, and legitimizes the Khmer Daeums legal claim to their lands by documenting how and where they use it. CI, working with NGO partners, Cambodias Forestry Administration, and the Khmer Daeum, plans for the day when these indigenous mountain communities will manage the forest independently. But Milne stresses that the process of working with the Khmer Daeum is still in its infancy.
Weve spent two years working with these people, gaining their trust, and letting them tell us whats important to them, she says. Ultimately, its going to be their management plan, for their forest as it should be.
(Note: The activities highlighted in this article have contributed to the Population and Environment (PE) component of CI-Cambodia's efforts in the Central Cardamoms Protected Forest. CI is grateful to the U.S. Agency for International Development for its support of the PE project.)