Tuesday, June 5, 2007
If you haven't seen it on your latest visit to Cambodia yet, the Cambodian Scene Magazine, published bi-monthly, is also available on-line, though in a limited edition. The magazine promotes Cambodia and contains a broad range of articles from culture to travel, environment to people, and a lot more besides. The current edition (May/June) contains the following article on the Tonle Sap floating village of Kompong Phluk and I've included it here as a taster for the magazine itself. You can read about my own visit to Kompong Phluk here.
A New Dawn - words by Khan Sophirom
In the depths of the jungle, a revolution is taking hold. Eco-tourism has arrived in the sunken forests of the Tonle Sap Lake, transforming a poor village into a paragon of conservation. Kampong Phlouk is a small community hidden at the edge of the Tonle Sap Lake, Siem Reap province. Nestled amongst whispering trees and shimmering water, it is the land that time forgot. Most work in traditional industries. Villagers fell trees, stalk game, and pilfer bird’s nests. Many trawl the great lake in search of fish. But the modern world encroaches. Rising populations stretch resources. Fish yields are falling, big game is rare, and the towering stands of teak are all gone. The traditional economy, largely based on barter, is no longer sustainable. Luckily an answer is at hand.
A $12,000 grant has provided a foundation for an ingenious eco-tourism project. The money provided by the Global Environment Facilities and United Nation Development (GENUND) Program has gone towards educating and training the local community. The project has been a great success. Of 3,068 villagers, 316 are now directly involved in the tourism industry. Birdwatchers have become a common sight, meandering through the sunken trees in wooden boats. Tourists come for the picturesque village setting and to see traditional everyday life. The changes have improved life for many people. Ms. Pen Sambo, 52, is a widow with four children living in Kampong Phlouk. In the past, Sambo was a fisherwoman, a job she recently gave up. "When there were still big fish in the lake, my family could earn 20,000 to 30,000 riel [$5-$7.50] per day," she said. "Recently there were only small fish, so I could earn only 5,000 to 6,000 riels [$1.25-$1.50]." She travelled many kilometres, often making only enough to cover gasoline and rice. Pen, like other widows in the community, is now learning to cook. Younger women learn the language skills needed to receive visitors. "I can cook only three foreign dishes but I earn more than before without having to travel," she said. "In the future, I will learn how to cook better. When enough tourists come, my family will give up fishing completely."
Education is as important as employment. Mr. Om Chhim, 56, is a former fisherman, hunter, and wood cutter. Though he earns no money directly from the project, he said he would no longer engage in harmful activities. "I used to cut down trees to get charcoal and wood to sell," he said. "I also hunted for birds eggs to eat because I had no money for rice. Now I understand that I have no right to destroy the forest and hunt animals. These activities can make the forest disappear forever. If I become a tourist guide, I can earn money and leave the same resources for my children." Kampong Phlouk's transformation from fishing community to ecotourism retreat is a part of the New Millennium Development Goals project. This government scheme is aimed at eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, and ensuring environmental sustainability. H.E. Lay Prohas, Minister of Tourism, said the government is encouraging ecotourism as a pragmatic and sustainable poverty reduction strategy. It is also a good way to promote development without damaging the environment, he added. "Ecotourism pushes community members to use their own resources to make money from tourists," said Prohas. "It also urges them to preserve those resources in order to continue attracting tourists."
Mr. Neug Ny, President of Kampong Phlouk Ecotourism Community, said deforestation and hunting have all but ceased. Once the environment becomes a draw for tourists, the community regulates conservation unaided he said. It seems to be working. "Tourists can swim through the submerged forest, or take a relaxing boat ride in traditional boats paddled by local people," said Ny. He added that Kampong Phlouk is not yet the most popular ecotourism destination, as it was only established in early 2007. But the untapped potential is massive. "Kampong Phlouk is well known as a fishing village, but in the future, I hope it will be better known as Siem Reap’s ecotourism zone," said Ny. Improved infrastructure now means that "delicious food made from fresh ingredients" is available and the situation "can only improve." But how involved are the local villagers in the decision making process? Ms. Ngin Navirak, the GENUND Grant Program National Coordinator, said support is only given when villagers show initiative. "No one can help them succeed,” she said. “Not without their own willpower.”
© 2007 Cambodian Scene Magazine all rights reserved