Wrapping up a recent research stint in Cambodia, we travelled to Trapeang Roung, a village on the Koh Kong Wildlife Corridor and home to a community-based ecotourism (CBET) project in the Southern Cardamom Mountains. Though not without criticism, CBET potentially offers a “win-win solution”: diversifying livelihoods and alleviating poverty, in part, by creating incentives to protect biodiversity and the natural environment – in a nutshell.
After spending a night homestay-ing with a local family we set off on a 3-day 50km trek with our two poacher-turned-guides (think lots of smiling, nodding and gesticulating due to serious language barrier).
The forest was stunning – dense, humid and sandy, but not an animal in sight. Not that we really expected to see any. Many of Cambodia’s rich, and largely endemic, species have been hunted, trafficked or eaten close to extinction. Combined with intense deforestation, those that remain are wise to be shy.
We spent two nights swinging in mosquito-proof hammocks under the blackest sky I have ever experienced, listening to the eerie and enchanting sounds of the jungle – before returning to the village.
It was fantastic! But what were we really supporting? And where were the answers to our growing number of questions and concerns regarding the CBET initiative?
What species should be there? What has happened to them? Is the CBET project empowering the community and conserving biodiversity? What were those noises we heard last night?
There was no shortage of cigarette packets and plastic bags on the track; the campsites were swarming with flies circling the mounting bags of rubbish. What happens to it? We tried to ask, but received only sheepish smiles.
The dense forest witnessed from the riverbanks disguised the brutal and rampant logging, the slash-and-burn clearing, the logging-truck tracks.
And, what about our guides? How do they continue to make a living on the majority of days when there aren’t any tourists? Presumably, they continue to poach because it is their only alternative income.
And what about the community members not involved in the scheme? Why should they change their practices if they do not receive any of the benefits? The revenue generated by CBET can be reasonably substantial, but is spread thinly – too thinly for many to rely solely on ecotourism and abandon overharvesting natural resources.
Where is the basic infrastructure necessary to make this project, full of potential, a success?
One key aspect of CBET is environmental education and awareness, not only for tourists, but also the local community. But this information was absent. Trapeang Roung is a desperately poor community, with rich, but dwindling natural resources, with little future prospects unless initiatives like this one get off the ground.
We went with an open mind – and yes, we had a great time – and encourage others to support this and similar CBET initiatives. They deserve support. By putting our money into the community we hoped to contribute to conservation efforts vital to safeguarding Cambodia’s biodiversity. But is that what we really did? And how can we know?