“I stopped illegal activities when they arrived” says Prom Heoung in perfect English. His dark eyes lit up slowly and his prominent cheekbones reveal a bright smile. Proud of his English and of what he could do for his community, like over 150 other villagers, Hoeung has traded poaching and slash and burn for tourism since the Community Based Eco-Tourism (CBET) project was launched here five years ago.
In the heart of Cambodian’s Southern Cardamom Mountains, small wooden houses sprinkle the banks of Piphot River, where coconut trees bend over the clear water. Welcome to Chi Phat, at the edge of a dirt road eroded by the heavy rains. All around, the emerald forest melts into the sky. Hoeung lives in this picture postcard scenery with 550 other families. A quiet and peaceful place today, Chi Phat used to be a busy area for wildlife traffickers and loggers. Heoung was one of them after the late 1970s left the village with nothing but a two decade long civil war heritage; no education, poverty and only the will to survive. He was illegally setting more forest land on fire for slash and burn farming every year and hunting in the forest to feed his family.
Situated in Southwest Cambodia, the Cardamom Mountain Range is the second largest continuous forest in South East Asia and one of the last seven remaining elephant corridors and large predator in the region. Covering just six percent of Cambodia, the Cardamoms’ continuous forest cover of nearly five million acres includes a vast rainforest ecosystem with 16 different vegetation types and home to 16 globally endangered species. Economic development in the area stalled for decades due to conflict, abuse of resources and communities by business and political interests, and the area’s economic isolation. The region is also vulnerable to climate change and shifting rain cycles.
Hoeung remembers the late 1980s when big logging concessions were exploited, with Chi Phat as a target. Cambodians came from all over the country to cut the rosewood and hunt wildlife from the surrounding rainforest. These illegal activities were much more profitable than any other farming activity: one cubic meter of rosewood would bring around 5000 US dollars to a home. Tiger skin, elephant tusks, bear paws, pangolins and other expensive wildlife trophies could also easily be traded. At its peak, a thousand of families were living in Chi Phat, supplying to the needs of a rich elite living in Phnom Penh or even China.
But for the past decade, people have been forbidden by law to pursue these activities. Knowing he could face serious time in jail if caught, Hoeung had to find other activities for him and his family to survive. US-based NGO Wildlife Alliance has been working with the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) since 2000 to assist in strengthening protected areas, promote good governance in forest conservation, help manage state forests, counter wildlife and timber trafficking, and develop sustainable alternative livelihoods. Wildlife Alliance set up a law enforcement program to protect the area with patrols by military police and Forestry Administration officers. In partnership with the Cambodian Forestry Administration, Wildlife Alliance established a care program at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center for rescued wildlife and a rehabilitation center in Koh Kong to release wildlife into this protected natural area. Wildlife Alliance employed local villagers to replant the forest with native trees at its nursery in Chi Phat. Actively engaging local communities to not only be involved but to take ownership of protecting their natural heritage is a fundamental component to the long-term conservation of the Cardamom Mountains.
In 2007, in collaboration with the community of Chi Phat, Wildlife Alliance launched a Community-Based Ecotourism Project. The aim of the CBET Project is to provide a better and more sustainable means of income for local communities. It gives villagers the opportunity to increase their livelihoods by protecting the forest rather than destroying it. The hunters can now earn more money from trekking with visitors from all around the world, showing the very wildlife they were hunting now roaming freely in lush jungle.
When the CBET project started in 2007, Hoeung decided to join and became a guide to lead adventurous tourists into the jungle; Hoeung knows every footprint, tree, sound that the rainforest can offer, the quickest ways to go jump from the five waterfalls around Chi Phat, as well as the best wildlife viewing areas. For two years, he studied English and saw the beauty of the jungle that he previously only considered as a mean of survival. The CBET gave a new life to the surroundings; trees are being replanted and an Angkorian archeological site has been uncovered revealing a six hundred year history in this remote part of the largest continuous forest in Cambodia.
The CBET project was set on a participatory basis. This methodology ensures the inclusion of stakeholders in project development. And it is the inclusion of stakeholders that is key to the successful outcomes of this project; decisions made about the project by community members are much more likely to be adhered to by community members, paving the way to long term success. A Management Committee, comprised of elected members of the community centralizes all the tourism activities in the village and in the forest. Everyone can join and earn from tourism. Families are now joining the project by setting up guesthouses and homestays to accommodate tourists. Poachers became guides or forest cooks amazing tourists in the forest, boat drivers leading them to rare bird species as the sun rises and fishing for lobster with them at night and motor drivers bringing them back to the rest of their journey. Villagers are able to keep accounting records, answer emails, book activities and coordinate all the tours. The CBET Project follows a fair benefit sharing system. All activities are set on a rotating basis so that every member enjoys the same chance of benefiting from tourism. With technical and financial support of Wildlife Alliance, Chi Phat now has 13 guesthouses, 10 homestays and 160 kilometers of trails for trekking and mountain biking. Chi Phat has a range of 20 Mountain bikes and 8 kayaks, a fleet at motorboats and row boats and a wide variety of pristine outdoor activities.
“I want to preserve [the forest] for the next generation.”
In 2009, Heoung became the chief of the project and is now in charge of giving a direction to it and ensure that the community and the local authorities can work together to promote the place and also preserve it. He can count on ten villagers patrolling in the forest to look for snares and traps and ensure the forest can be fully enjoyed by the tourists coming to visit the surroundings. “I want to preserve for the next generation” tells Heoung to journalists writing about Chi Phat. After 5 years, Chi Phat has become the most successful CBET Project in Cambodia and one of the most successful in Southeast Asia. It has over 150 members from the community and brings indirect income to another 30 families. To date Chi Phat has welcomed over 5,400 domestic and international visitors generating over US$205,000 income into the community.
The natural wonders of the Cardamoms, and the protection and development efforts of Wildlife Alliance and the community of Chi Phat, makes Koh Kong province Cambodia’s second destination—the place that no international tourist will want to miss after seeing the temples of Angkor.
Recognized by the Lonely Planet travel guide as one of the top ten ecotourism destinations in the world, your visit will directly help Chi Phat commune to save this pristine jungle!View the slides presented at ITB Asia’s Responsible Tourism Forum 2012.