Just north of our home in Siem Reap is Phnom Kulen National Park, one of the province’s most popular tourist locations. There are beautiful waterfalls, ancient Angkorian ruins, and mountain villages filled with playful children and adorable baby pigs. At first, the National Park seems like a wonderful retreat from society, a chance to disconnect from the world and become immersed in a simpler way of life. In the week I’ve spent on the mountain, I have seen several groups of tourists doing homestays here, just to have that sort of retreat.
Teaching Assistant Chum Nith enjoying a game of volleyball with some local villagers
I can’t help but wonder if those tourists recognize the sounds of chainsaws in the distance, or realize the pristine tropical forests they think surrounds them is largely actually a plantation of cashew nut trees. Most of the original forest has been cleared away by mountain villagers some years ago.
According to one story published in the Phnom Penh Post (one of the largest English newspapers in Cambodia), about 80% of the Park has been deforested since its demarcation as a National Park in the early 1990s. Illegal logging and agricultural expansion are two of the main reasons cited for this destruction. For the last month of the SFS program, I am conducting research about two Community Protected Areas (CPA) on the mountain. Within Phnom Kulen National Park there are five CPAs, each connected with a particular village. For each CPA, the local village is responsible for creating CPA committees which is tasked with conservation of the forest and managing resources like fruit, rattan (a vine plant that can be weaved into baskets or furniture), and firewood. The intention is that the community benefits from sustainable resource extraction and protects the forest from illegal loggers and agricultural development.
It didn’t take long to realize this was not an easy task.
Forest clearing along the main road into the park
My research so far has involved understanding the exact reasons why forest protection has not been effective in these sites. Some difficulties were based locally and some were due to insufficient government or NGO support. Regardless of why, within one CPA being studied, parts of the forest have been chipped away by farmers developing fields for rice and cashew plantations. When observed by satellite or aerial images, the circles of land where plantations have been cleared is quite visible.
However, even as the forest land is slowly dwindling, I have met many villagers that truly care about the forest, the environment, and sustainable resource use. These are local people that know and understand the mountain, and are actively fighting to protect it. I’ve interviewed the men directly responsible for patrolling the forest and protecting it from loggers and farmers. I’ve met government officials providing training and support to the village and its forest protectors. I’ve spoken with young women and mothers who want nothing more than a safe home that will let their children thrive and be happy. At the core of all these people is the innate knowledge that in order to preserve their families and their lifestyles, they must preserve their forestland.
Photo courtesy of Madelene Sacra
In the US, most of us don’t feel such a direct impact from changes in the land around us. A tree is cut, a building is constructed, and life continues on. Seeing the inspiration in these villagers has been incredibly positive for me. Even though the fight to protect the forest is as hard as ever, their motivation persists. Perhaps this motivation is what we all need. Perhaps, with it, we will all understand that our actions and decisions impact the planet, our only home. Our beautiful home, filled with playful children and adorable baby pigs. It may seem like the problem is too large for us to have an impact. It may feel like the systems in place aren’t working. But for the sake of our home, we must continue to believe. We must continue to fight.