Our first semester is drawing to a close. The past five days have been a flurry of analysis and writing for the students as they worked on their Directed Research (DR) reports. The days before that were spent in data collection, a process that took place in two notably different settings. Each morning our students set off at 7:30, heading northwest or southeast.
One DR group spent its time in a village called Kamprum, north of the temples of Angkor. Kamprum has a population of 413 families, and is situated at the base of Phnom Kulen National Park, a beautiful park under serious threat from deforestation and agricultural land expansion. Some of the villagers’ homes lie within the park boundaries, and others outside of it, and our teams walked house to house in both areas, seeking villagers not busy with their rice harvest. Two translators assisted our student researchers, and fascinating information was gained about patterns in collection and use of non-timber forest products, traditional medicine usage, and local perceptions and knowledge of climate change.
Livelihood activities in the village are dominated by agriculture and, sadly, by hauling wood from within and around the national park for fueling charcoal kilns and a number of brick factories. However, students also met villagers engaged in occupations as varied as lemon grass farming, traditional healers, and mushroom growers. Time and again, students heard from village residents about the rapid decline and loss of natural resources and forest. Yet residents’ dependence upon and ongoing use of natural resources was clearly evident, highlighting the importance of establishing sustainable and equitable management and conservation practices in this vulnerable park.
The second group spent their days in Kompong Kleang village, a stilted village beside a tributary of the great Tonle Sap lake. Their team was based out of a local fisherman’s home, where students spent each day counting, identifying, and measuring different fish from local catches. Their studies assessed species diversity, morphology of fish assemblage, and feeding ecology. Other students conducted interviews with numerous villagers, exploring economic factors in aquaculture and local perceptions of the former fishing lots. Students learned that the majority of the fish currently caught are smaller-size species that are mainly low value. These negative trends are leading to a rise in alternative livelihood activities such as aquaculture.
The days were long and tiring and full of the satisfactions and challenges of conducting primary research. Both groups returned home shortly before dinner each night, and pressed on into the night entering their data for future analysis. Despite the demanding schedule, several students stated that conducting field research has been the highlight of their entire semester, and we faculty and staff are proud of their dedication and effort. We are sad to be ending our time together and we will always remember our pioneering and energetic first cohort of students here at the SFS Center for Mekong Studies.