Bringing Cambodia Back from the Brink: An Audio Interview with Suwanna GauntlettDecember 10, 2010 By Hannah Marquseean estimated 1.7 million people – one fifth of Cambodia’s total population – the environment and Cambodian people are still feeling the effects.
The Pol Pot regime’s policy of agrarian collectivization dramatically reorganized land ownership and relocated millions from urban to rural areas. The ensuing decades of Vietnamese occupation and civil war further changed Cambodia’s workforce, dislocating millions.
Suwanna Gauntlett, founder and CEO of Wildlife Alliance, told ECSP in this interview. Today, 78 percent of Cambodia’s 14.5 million people live in rural areas, according to the World Bank, nearly all of whom work as subsistence farmers. These rural households account for almost 90 percent of Cambodia’s poor and 36 percent of the total population in 1997.
“These Forests Were Silent”
When Wildlife Alliance arrived in Cambodia in 2000, “these forests were silent,” Gauntlett said. “You couldn’t hear any birds, you couldn’t hear any wildlife and you could hardly see any signs of wildlife because of the destruction.”
In one village, Chi Phat, Gauntlett noted how years of slash-and-burn agriculture had left a “circle of death” around the village as farmers gradually encroached further into the forest.
Cambodians have compensated by turning from traditional subsistence farming to illegal logging, wildlife trafficking, slash-and-burn agriculture, mining, and other unsustainable development (with significant Chinese investment). This has contributed to food and water insecurity, rapid deforestation, habitat loss, and species extinctions. In 1990, 73 percent of Cambodia’s land was covered by forest. By 2007, that number had dropped to 57 percent. Cambodia’s 146 threatened plant and animal species have also felt the effects of this loss. The Indochinese tiger, native to Cambodia, is now thought to have less than 30 individuals remaining in the entire country.
Focusing on the Cardamom mountain range – Cambodia’s largest remaining intact forest – Wildife Alliance established several community-based agriculture and ecotourism programs to help villagers escape the “vicious circle” of poverty and environmental destruction. Ten years later, “there’s been tremendous progress in the geographic areas of our projects,” said Gauntlett.
In another village, Sovanna Baitong, Wildlife Alliance’s community agriculture program has raised the incomes of some residents to over $200 a month when the national poverty level is $200 a year, Gauntlett said. Today this village has a school, a clinic that provides health care and family planning, and a micro-credit fund. This is all managed by the community leaders, 30 percent of whom are women.
Ten years ago, “it was a mess,” Gauntlett said. “It’s amazing to see the difference.”
However, in parts of the country where Wildlife Alliance does not operate, deforestation continues at an alarming pace, often fueled by Chinese and other foreign investment. In some parts of the country, “deforestation has led to very severe water shortages,” including villages where people have to walk up to 20 kilometers for water because “there is no more underground water,” said Gauntlett. This has troubling implications for Cambodian security, particularly with aggressive hydrological development of the Upper Mekong continuing in China and Laos.
“I’m afraid that’s what’s going to happen throughout Cambodia – that this water shortage will lead to food shortage [which] will lead to civil unrest,” Gauntlett said.
Sources: BBC, Cambodian Genocide Program, The Washington Post, Wildlife Alliance, World Bank, WWF, UNEP.
Photo Credit: “Farmer at Sovanna Baitong” and “Suwanna Gauntlett” Courtesy of Wildlife Alliance.
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