Three decades after the Khmer Rouge regime wiped out an 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.
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.
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.