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Protecting mangrove forests in Cambodia

July 15, 2011

Some of the last remaining pristine mangrove forests in Southeast Asia are found in Cambodia: lush "rainforests by the sea" that are among the most biologically diverse wetlands on earth. Yet, in post-conflict Cambodia, these mangrove forests are under serious threat. The inside of many mangrove stands are now devoid of trees, and the rich resources of mangroves are rapidly dwindling. For people who depend on the mangrove forests for their livelihood, the disappearing mangroves spell disaster. 

With support from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), a group of researchers at the national level and in Koh Kong province are taking a new approach to managing mangrove resources — one that involves the leadership of local people. And the group is having success: people who were destroying the mangroves are now helping to protect them. Based in part on these results, the Cambodian government has also modified its policy on the environment.

Lush resources

With their roots deep in mud, jagged and gnarled mangrove trees are able to grow in the brackish wetlands between land and sea where other plant life cannot survive. The trees offer refuge and nursery grounds for fish, crabs, shrimp, and mollusks. They are nesting and migratory sites for hundreds of bird species. They also provide homes for monkeys, lizards, sea turtles, and many other animals as well as countless insects.

Until relatively recently, the mangroves of Koh Kong, Cambodia have remained relatively intact. This is partly because of the region’s location — it is an isolated, inaccessible place — and because decades of war and conflict perversely protected the forests from overexploitation. Local people, however, tended to use the forests sustainably, for food, fuel, medicine, building materials, and other basic needs. 

However, in the early 1990s, conflict in Cambodia began to abate and the situation changed. Poverty-stricken families from other parts of the country moved to Koh Kong hoping to earn a living from the area’s lush resources. So did entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on the lucrative trade with Thailand in aquatic resources, logs, and illegally produced mangrove charcoal. (The wood of mangroves, when cured in a kiln, can be transformed into high quality charcoal.) 

As resources rapidly became depleted, villagers were tempted by short-term gains: cutting mangrove trees to illegally make charcoal to sell to intermediaries or undertaking illegal cyanide or grenade fishing.

Taking stock

To find solutions, the Participatory Management of Mangrove Resources project was implemented in Peam Krasoap Wildlife Sanctuary (PKWS) in Koh Kong province in 1997. PKWS, which still contains large and dense mangrove forests, was established in 1993 and is one of 23 protected areas in Cambodia. Project researchers are focusing on finding ways for villagers to use natural resources for their livelihood, also managing them so that they last.

Researchers began by taking stock of the natural resources in the area and how they were used. They were starting from scratch because, as project leader Kim Nong explains, "In Cambodia, we lack documentation about the history of each region. During the Pol Pot time, all documents were destroyed. And people living in the region are all new to the area."

Researchers worked with villagers to identify the various tree species. They then began working with villages to find solutions: replanting the mangroves, developing strategies for small scale fishing, investigating siliviculture for charcoal production, undertaking experiments with aquaculture.

However, researchers had to first work to gain the trust of villagers. As Mr. Nong explains: "People have bad history from the Pol Pot time. Because during this time, when they called people to a study meeting, people never came back. And after Pol Pot, no government or institution invited villagers to join a meeting. Never. So after our project became involved in the area, when we invited them to come to a meeting, they were still thinking about Pol Pot. They were afraid."

Through steady communication, trust built and villagers became more actively involved in the project. "We’ve gone from seeing village chiefs who were half-interested to having them completely on board." says Melissa Marschke, a project advisor in Koh Kong. "Now villages are initiating their own strategies and coming up with their own ideas of how they would like to protect their resources." For example, they have developed community regulations, and developed strategies for protecting the mangroves: anyone caught cutting mangroves has his or her boat confiscated.

Getting government buy-in

The team also focused on building the capacity of the Cambodian government to protect the environment. They helped them to see the environment as inextricably linked to sustainable livelihoods and peoples’ participation as essential for environmental protection. Researchers communicated regularly with Ministers, chiefs of departments, and the provincial government. They provided training about biodiversity or mangrove ecology, and organized study tours — opportunities for officials to come to the village and actually see the work in the field.

"To have a Minister come down to the field level is still very rare in Cambodia," says Ms Marschke. "And the fact that the Minister here is coming down every year to see what the project is doing and to have him really listening to those results is really significant".

In Koh Kong, officials saw that villagers were experimenting with new approaches — for example, attempting small scale aquaculture. "In a society that is risk-adverse — life is hard, and you don’t want to take chances — this is significant," says Ms Marschke.

In addition, says Ms Marschke, "People who once made charcoal by cutting mangrove trees have actually come to help protect the mangrove." As Mr Nong explains it, powerful and authoritative people in community were offering protection to those who illegally extracted resources — in exchange for a cut of the profits. However, because of the project the dynamic has changed in the community such that people are now "shy" to covertly extract resources, according to Mr Nong.

"Because of the project, resource degradation has stopped — not all, not a complete stop, but 80 percent," says Mr Nong. "Before people were thinking they didn’t have the right [to protect natural resources]. Now they are thinking its not just your resource, it’s my resource too," he says.

Because of these results, government officials changed their policy on how natural resources should be protected, revising a draft subdecree to acknowledge that communities do have the right to manage their own resources. They initially believed that the most effective way to protect natural resources was to move people out of the protected areas. "But after the discussion that they had throughout the project," says Mr Nong, "they decided it was important for the community to control their own resources." 

Lisa Waldick, a writer at IDRC, met with the team working on the community-based mangrove management project during a recent trip to Cambodia.