Developing Conservation and Ecotourism Initiatives in Collaboration with Local Communities
"Use it or lose it," so the saying goes. When it comes to conserving Cambodia's extensive forests, this maxim rings true. Local and indigenous people have used the forests for hundreds of years, harvesting honey and fruit, tapping resin, collecting medicinal plants and cutting trees for timber without depleting the rich natural resources. Conservation in a poor country like Cambodia will not succeed unless local and indigenous people see the benefits.
Bringing the tourists back
Aware of this, WWF's Srepok Wilderness Area Project in eastern Cambodia is designed to conserve the rich aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity of a remote stretch of the Srepok River, including the surrounding forests, by using it and encouraging it to be used. The aim is to protect the landscape while at the same time developing an ecotourism venture that would generate new, alternative jobs for local people to replace the lucrative wildlife trade and commercial logging that threaten the forest today.
In the past, many tourists, albeit big game hunters, were attracted here to the Eastern Plains once described as the "Serengeti of Asia". The intent of WWF's project is to bring the tourists back, this time to go birding, fly fish on the river and trek the forest to view the wildlife, much as tourists do in the thousands in South Africa's national parks.
Involving local communities in conservation
One of the first activities of the project was to collect information about how the river and nearby forests are being used and the impact those activities have on the environment. WWF will then work in collaboration with local people to identify and zone protected areas along the Srepok River, and develop management guidelines and conservation agreements to ensure critical habitats are adequately protected. Best practices specifically related to community fisheries and forestry and integrated watershed management are being introduced to local communities As well, local people are being helped to acquire the skills that will enable them to participate in the management of these resources in the future. Stewardship grants will be awarded to communities for sound environmental management. In addition, small grants will be given for community facilities such as health clinics and schools as an incentive for sustainable management of natural resources.
Reducing poverty by protecting resources
Good management is also intended to alleviate the poverty many of the indigenous people find themselves mired in. The resources which have sustained them for so long are being threatened by illegal logging, the construction of dams, and over fishing. Moreover, the forest is being encroached on by an influx of migrants from other parts of the country who do not follow traditional practices that are compatible with conservation but instead use modern fishing methods such as gill nets and dynamite to fish. Restoration of the quality of freshwater and the forest ecosystems will ultimately safeguard livelihoods that are based on these natural resources.