Protecting the forest before it’s too late

Veit Phumi (second from right) takes a break while on forestry patrol with some of her team members in O’Koki Community Protected Area. She says women played an important role in establishing the CPA, and continue to encourage family and others to protect it. Photo: Savann Oeurm/Oxfam

Concerned about the disappearing forest in northern Cambodia, women in a remote village set up and defend a Community Protected Area.

When Veit Phumi was growing up in northern Cambodia, she lived near the edge of a vast forest where she and her father would collect wild mushrooms and other food. At night, she would listen to the sounds of birds and other wild animals, like boars and deer. “I saw many elephants,” she says, laughing. Once, when she was about 10 years old, she followed a herd of elephants until she could touch one.

The forest was a source of food and raw materials like wood and rattan for making furniture and houses. Phumi and her father traveled in the forest on a cart, tapping trees for resin used to make lacquer. He taught her the names of all the different types of trees.

“I was very happy to see all the timber and wildlife in this forest back then, but now I am worried that the remaining trees and wild animals might be gone forever because of the demand for land for rubber and palm oil plantations, or mining,” she says.

Concessions for business

Phumi is 46 now, and has good reasons to be concerned about disappearing forests in her native Ratanakiri province. In an effort to promote economic development, the government of Cambodia is granting Economic Land Concessions (ELCs) to companies eager to establish rubber tree and palm oil plantations. These operations destroy old-growth forests from which local communities derive significant portions of household income. A study by Oxfam’s partner Save Cambodia’s Wildlife (SCW) on the economic impact of ELCs on communities living near the Virachey National Park (near the Lao border) and Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary (near Phumi’s home) found that 95 percent of local households said land and natural resources were vital for their livelihoods.

The O’Koki Community Protected Area is about 4,700 acres in the southern part of Ratanakiri province. Photo: Savann Oeurm/Oxfam

The study revealed that in Rattanakiri alone, the government granted 26 forestry concessions, ELCs, and mining concessions to Cambodian and Vietnamese private companies. One of these concessions was in Phumi’s hometown, Village 3, where 80,000 hectares (about 197,600 acres) was granted to a Vietnamese company for a rubber tree and oil palm plantation in 2011. Villagers say they were not properly consulted.

In 2014, Phumi and others from Village 3 began meeting with Save Cambodia’s Wildlife to learn how to establish and manage a Community Protected Area (CPA), in order to preserve 1,908 hectares (about 4,700 acres) of forest land for their own use. It’s called the O’Koki Community Protected Area.

She is one of the core team members who initiated this CPA. They mobilized other villagers to gain their support for a proposal to district and provincial authorities. Once the CPA was granted permission, the core team started to create guidelines and policies for managing the CPA, and formed a patrolling team to enforce them. The O’Koki CPA was recognized with a decree from the Ministry of Environment in 2016.

On patrol

Phumi says she and her neighbors need to keep a sharp eye on O’Koki to ensure outsiders don’t cut down its valuable hardwood trees. It’s challenging: They lack financial resources to cover their expenses for patrolling the forest. But she and others are committed to protecting O’Koki because the Ministry of Environment can withdraw the CPA if they observe that the forest has been cut down and people do not fully participate in protecting it.

Keo Rithy, 41, is the deputy of the O’Koki CPA patrolling team. He says illegal logging has almost completely stopped since they organized the CPA and forestry patrols. “We patrol two to three times a month. Each time, we have six people. If our patrol team is informed about illegal actives in the CPA, we don’t care, day or night, rain or shine, we have to go out on patrol quickly.” Photo: Savann Oeurm/Oxfam

Phumi says she is a lot better at communicating about the O’Koki CPA and teaching people how to protect it. “It’s different from the past,” she says. “I was very scared and nervous when talking about protecting natural resources or the CPA. Now, I am confident to talk with men and authorities on the development plan of the CPA and my village, as well as the need to stop illegal logging activities.”

Now that they have the CPA established and are organized to protect it, Phumi says she hopes she and her neighbors in Village 3 can set up an eco-tourism business, so they can share the beauty of O’Koki with others.

Listen to writer Chris Hufstader's recent audio postcard to hear more about our work in the O'Koki Community Protected Area.

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