We have finally escaped the 40-degree heat of Phnom Penh and have found ourselves travelling 8 slow and steady hours by bus (our bus-driver needs L plates) to the rural north-east province of Mondulkiri. Mondulkiri is the Cambodian word for Mountains; however the closest thing we have seen to a mountain is a gigantic termite mound. We settled into our new hostel, but unfortunately the plumbing here wasn’t quite set up to handle copious amounts of toilet paper… among other things. We were delighted to hear the contagious laughter of S running from her room screaming; “it wouldn’t flush” with the toilet ladle in her hand. Lets put it this way, S’s toilet was broken and after vicious bowel movements, the best way she thought she could fix it was fetching ‘it’ out with a ladle and catapulting it away into the bushes outside.
On a more serious note, driving to Mondulkiri was an extreme eye-opener. Kilometres and kilometres of what used to be lush rainforest has turned into economic land concessions such as rubber plantations and flat, cleared spaces for farming. The beautiful rainforest had been transformed into unethical, unsustainable cash-crop plantations with the sole intention of making a quick buck. Seeing this sort of deforestation first hand is nothing like reading about it in a textbook or a newspaper. It’s devastating. It touches you deeply because it is the direction of our future. It makes your mind run a million miles an hour. Why do people feel the need to expel of such natural, sustainable beauty and livelihood? Too many times the answer is greed and monetary gain. Transnational corporations, international elites and the overall increasing demand from the international market for forestry produce are all primary contributors to such saddening scenes of forest clearance. Money, superiority and power have become much too prevalent in today’s society. People are forgetting what really matters. Elites do not care what they are destroying in the process of deforestation as long as they are producing revenue and supplying to the increasing demand. It is so easy for people to think that the forest will just grow back, but there is so much more too it than that. People, wildlife species, livelihood, history, culture and spirituality, don’t just grow back.
Through our understanding and experience we have found that the deforestation in Cambodia has sparked a continuous battle between economists and environmentalists. Particularly in the last 2-5 years law enforcement in Cambodia has become even weaker causing rapid rates of deforestation to occur purely because it has become the national trend/social norm to disregard forestry and logging laws. It is so unfortunate and makes us feel absolutely powerless to know that there are so many laws in place to protect sacred forest areas in Cambodia, but they are of little to no use because of corruption. It is such a tricky situation. We have briefly witnessed conservationists in this province strive to impose ecofriendly plans to conserve the rainforest and protect the indigenous Bunong people from expulsion and urbanisation – both extremely foreign concepts to these people, but unfortunately such protection is problematic as conservationists and the indigenous Bunong people are faced with illegal loggers, poachers and well-connected and corrupt spectators and elites. The problem of land clearance has been locally managed by reaching land boundary agreements with the government that include sufficient land for agriculture and for residential expansion, but even so we learnt that these boundaries are still ignored. Like in many developing countries corruption plays a vital role in economic and lawful practices and due to lack of law enforcement in Cambodia, the forest and the forest people are suffering.
On our first full day in Mondulkiri province we were lucky enough to visit the Wildlife Conservation Society’s community-based ecotourism project at Andong Kralong in Seima Protection Forest, Mondulkiri. The WCS have slowly set up a space for a small eco-village consisting of an ecofriendly compost toilet and tent-like ‘glamping’ dorms in order to generate ecotourism into the wildlife sanctuary. We visited the tiny eco-village and were then lead by Indigenous Bunong guides on a 2hr jungle trek through the lush jade green forest. Observing the local guides intimate connection with the forest was incredible and allowed us to truly understand the extreme importance of conservation in this area. This amazing project funded by WCS and its local NGO partners has provided training in all aspects of ecotourism for local Bunong staff. The WCS ecotourism project acknowledged the importance that the staff should speak the local Bunong language along side English translation in order to engage tourists with authenticity and anecdotal information. Currently working there are 42 staff members employed on a part-time permanent basis as guides, cooks, guesthouse managers and gibbon researchers. Although we are no experts, as development students we know that Western approaches to conservation (or any type of humanitarian assistance) can lead to dependency. Throughout our visit to WCS, Kez – a Scottish conservationist, continually emphasised to us that once the project is up and running, the overall mission is to encourage the Bunong people to effectively manage and run the ecotourism project alone. This is such an important element to sustainable development and it was soooo refreshing and exciting to see that it was implemented here on the ground in Cambodia.
Throughout this experience we have seen that ecotourism aims to show the local people the value of the wildlife within these forests and therefore eliminates any ‘quick fix’ money hungry behaviour. It assists in conservation because the locals no longer want to destroy the native flora and fauna species for monetary gain. As the locals see interest as well as revenue through tourism, they are more motivated to preserve this natural space. As a result the Bunong community has become a partner in nature conservation and has begun effectively protecting a variety of endangered species that otherwise would not exist. Village economic development has also been a positive result from this ecotourism project. As tourists pass through the revenue has also provided funding for community development projects in the local village such as: agricultural support, road improvements and the construction of new wells allowing the local people alongside the forest to slowly start creeping out of poverty. An important theme we have already taken away from today is the people-forest relationship and the importance of collaboration and cooperation in preserving both.
The second half of our day was extra, EXTRA special. We got to visit and encounter Sambo, the newest member to The Elephant Valley family. Sambo, the beautiful 54-year-old Asian Elephant was rescued from Phnom Penh about 7 months ago and is currently in her first stage of rehabilitation. Sambo was one of few elephants to survive the civil war and was trained to work and be ridden by tourists in Phnom Penh. Throughout her time in Phnom Penh Sambo was fed copious amounts of non-elephant friendly food causing serious health impacts. Arriving to the Elephant Valley Project was a big feat for Sambo. She arrived with digestion illness and infected, ground down feet. Luckily for her she now lives happily and healthily in the heart of Elephant Valley and is granted with the greatest gift of all – to live again. We were so mesmerised by this big, beautiful creature. There is just something about being in the presence of an elephant that leaves you feeling so content. Elephants have such a unique and infectious energy.
Acknowledging this energy, it was absolutely clear to us that Jack Highwood, founder of the Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment (E.L.I.E) has put his heart and soul into these amazing animals and their surrounding community. By creating a safe space for elephants to live freely in the wild, the Elephant Valley ecotourism project in Sen Monorom provides an alternative approach to elephant care. The overall goal of E.L.I.E is to improve the health and welfare of captive elephants as well as working with the Bunong people to solve the problems of elephant endangerment. Through various options for tourists to either: volunteer, participate in day visits, overnight stays and/or elephant immersion programs, we were very impressed to witness that E.L.I.E produces enough money to pay for all the costs involved in looking after the elephants including elephant vet fees, staff salary, rent and administration. Additionally the funds also contribute to the healthcare coverage of 1000 + residents of Putrom Village, forestry protection, employment programs for the Bunong people and support for the children of the community to go to school. For an organisation that we assumed to have a sole interest in protecting endangered elephants alone (already amazing in our eyes) the E.L.I.E and the Elephant Valley Project proved to holistically value the importance of the spiritual and practical connection between the elephants, the Bunong people and the forest.
After such an informative day we regained our faith in humanity and came away with such an optimistic outlook for future conservation and ecotourism development programs. Today in particular, it became clear to us that with passion, cooperation, hard work and persistence, it is possible to achieve great things.
With all our love,
S, H and K.