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Land conservation for Cambodia’s rural poor

When the leader of the Khmer Rouge movement, Pol Pot, embarked on his reforming policies in the 1970s, which lead to millions being ejected from the cities and dying in the ‘killing fields’, he was striving to achieve the dream of an agrarian utopia, where peasants would live happily, without the need for money or possessions.

Thirty decades later, and with much progress in the rebuilding of the country’s institutions, the World Bank reports that Cambodia is achieving high rates of economic growth, cutting poverty significantly over the last fifteen years, though mostly in the cities.  In rural areas, a drive to attract foreign investment has lead to many concessions being awarded to companies from China, Vietnam and South Korea, for running mines, power plants, farms and plantations. This has caused many land disputes and concern from outside that the poor are being dispossessed of their land without adequate compensation, especially since the country still lacks a strong, independent judiciary closed to any interference.

But despite commercial threats to the land, designated areas of Cambodia are now being protected by community forest schemes, demonstrating that the rural poor are not without power and resources, when provided with legal support.

One such project is in the eastern province of Kampong, where villagers have been encouraged to take a stand against illegal logging, by claiming rights to the land around the village, with the support of a Thailand-based international NGO. Logging has stripped Cambodia of much forestry, seeing tree coverage of the land plummet from 73% of Cambodia’s territory in the 1970s, to 59% by 2006. Between 1990 and 2005, the UN estimates that 2.5 million hectares of forest were cut down.

Around the village of Beng, the locals now legally protect the Prey Rong Knong forest, covering 281 hectares of land. In March last year, villagers signed a deal with the Cambodian authorities to manage the forest and its resources. This kind of community project is intended to reduce the trend of deforestation, which heavily impacts on climate change. At the same time, these schemes protect the land from outsiders, with an estimated 85 per cent of Cambodian households lacking any titles to their lands. And the forestry tract provides villagers with a long term livelihood, where they can collect fruits and mushrooms to sell and eat, create ponds to plant bamboo, and eventually harvest high-grade timber.

Nearly 200 other sites are awaiting verification from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and international supporters hope the government will grant longer leases on such forestry sites, despite the increasing pressure from commercial interests. If such community schemes continue to find governmental support, then through peaceful means, Pol Pot’s dream of a utopian peasant existence in the countryside has the chance of becoming a reality across Cambodia.
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