Living with the Forest: Sustainable Use Proves More Democratic Than a Forestry Ban in Angkor, Cambodia

By Hubbard, Cindy | Alternatives Journal, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Living with the Forest: Sustainable Use Proves More Democratic Than a Forestry Ban in Angkor, Cambodia


Hubbard, Cindy, Alternatives Journal


CALLING OUT A CHEERFUL "sok sabay", Mr. Chrouk San welcomes me back to Cambodia with hot tea and a cool porch to sit and escape the tropical heat. San's small wooden home is located within the World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat, an ancient city of temples in northern Cambodia. Hidden among the park's expanses of lush, semi-evergreen forest and winding rivers, lie the ruins of over 800 temples built between the 6th and 14th centuries. San is just one of more than 20,000 villagers who live precariously balanced among these trees and temples.

This cultural gem of Southeast Asia is a major tourist attraction and source of much needed revenue for the Cambodian government. To protect the Angkor temples and forests, the government imposed a ban on forest harvesting in 1994. The government claimed to be worried that unsustainable harvesting rates in Angkor threatened the health of the forests. No accommodation was made for the villagers. San and others complained bitterly of a law that "provided no alternatives, only prohibitions" as they watched their incomes drop by as much as 90 percent.

So what brought me to San's front porch? I had come to study the impacts of a pilot community forest project developed to alleviate the dramatic effects of the ban on San and his neighbours. I was curious to find out whether the newly planted Angkor community forest was going to be sustainable--and if so, how?

I first met San in 1997 while working for the joint United Nations Volunteers and United Nations Development Program (UN V/UNDP) Community Participation in Protected Areas Project. At that time Cambodia was reeling from more than three decades of civil war and political conflict--most notably, the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge, which was responsible for an estimated two million deaths in the mid-1970s. The country was littered with landmines, the government was unable to provide basic health or education services, and the only substantial economic activity was international aid.

Like the majority of Cambodians during this period, San lived in the rural countryside eking out a modest living farming rice on a small 3/4 hectare plot of poor quality agricultural land, raising pigs and growing a few vegetables. He lived with his family of six in a small wood-frame home and thatched roof with no clean drinking water, no toilet and no electricity. He brought home less than 4000 Riels ($30) a month with odd jobs and casual labour.

San's family had traditionally supplemented his meagre income by selling fuelwood, vines, resins and oils collected from nearby forests. Fuelwood could be gathered freely and used to support a number of profitable enterprises, such as cooking palm sugar and making charcoal. The family also relied exclusively on fuelwood for cooking and heating. Materials for housing, tools, equipment, fishing boats, wild vegetables and traditional medicines were all gathered from the forest. All of this changed in 1994 when harvesting and collecting forest products became illegal. Travel times for fuelwood collection quadrupled and many villagers collected forest products illegally and at an unsustainable rate--risking not only conflicts and fines from the Heritage Police, but the accelerated deforestation of their communal forest areas.

Community forestry

One of my top priorities as an environmental specialist with the UNV/UNDP project was to work with the villagers to find an alternative forest management strategy--one that could lead to the sustainable management of their forest resources. In early 1998, the government gave us approval to pilot community-based forest management in Angkor. (1) Community forestry is an idea dating from the early 1970s. Basically it involves giving communities access to and responsibility for managing the forests where they live. Our objectives in Angkor were threefold: to protect and conserve the forest resources in Angkor; to improve the livelihood opportunities for local communities; and to empower communities to manage their forest resources.

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