Can Ecotourism Help Save Cambodia’s Forests?

Cambodia is at a crossroads. Nestled between two tiger cub economies, the Southeast Asian country is finally coming into its own after recovering from a brutal genocide and civil war, and reentering the global economy in the last two decades. With a rising GDP, youthful population, and increased investment from China through the Belt and Road Initiative, the future looks bright. Yet, widespread environmental degradation threatens to take it all away as the country struggles to halt illegal logging driven by corruption and the global demand for timber. How can Cambodia forge a different narrative? And can ecotourism be a part of it?

Driving through the eastern Cambodian province of Mondulkiri, you can see vast swaths of once-forested land now covered in rubber plantations. Home to indigenous groups and the country’s approximately 400 remaining wild Asian elephants, the forest is quickly shrinking due to illegal logging and which have proliferated in recent years.

Deforestation has had debilitating effects on the region’s wildlife. The last official tiger sighting in Cambodia was in 2007, which, according to conservationists, renders the species “functionally extinct”. Likewise, elephant populations have dwindled along with their habitats. Although the province is predominantly under the protected area status, it has not been enough to curb illegal logging and illicit wildlife trade. In February 2019, an elephant living in a wildlife sanctuary was found dead with its tusks and tail cut off.

Illegal logging in Mondulkiri province. Image: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, Global Water Forum.

People, too, have been adversely affected by the clearing of forests, loss of wildlife, and intrusion of private companies all seeking a stake in the seemingly-unclaimed land. Those without formal land titles have become victims of ‘land-grabbing’, and in a bizarre twist of fate, have sometimes turned from traditional farming practices to illegal logging themselves. Even state-held land has not been immune from land grabbing, illustrating weak law enforcement in a land sometimes referred to as the ‘Wild West’ of Cambodia.

Forest cleared to pave way for plantations and agricultural products. Image: CC-BY-SA-4.0, Christian Pirkl.

Sadly, the rest of Cambodia could face a similar fate, if serious efforts are not made to tackle environmental degradation.

But there is hope. To some, the key to overcoming Cambodia’s environmental challenges lies in its booming tourism industry. According to the Cambodian government’s official statistics, 5.6 million international tourists visited Cambodia in 2017, up from approximately 100,000 in 1993, when the government first began taking count. Although many of these millions hardly leave the ruins of the 12th century Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap province, the more than tenfold increase in tourists is promising for a country once riddled with landmines and conflict.

Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap province, Cambodia. Image: CC BY 2.0, Juan Antonio Segal.

Tourism, if managed sustainably, has the potential to provide economic opportunities for areas susceptible to environmental degradation. Community-based ecotourism (CBET) in particular could thrive in a country that is home to one of the last biodiversity hotspots in Southeast Asia. Unlike mainstream tourism, which is run by private entities and often provides limited benefits to communities, CBET could empower communities to play an active role in and benefit from the growing tourism industry

However, the ability for ecotourism to offer tangible benefits to rural Cambodians rather than just become a label co-opted by luxury resorts is limited by several factors.

First and foremost, ecotourism, particularly community-based ecotourism (CBET), requires institutional support. This has been offered by a range of stakeholders, including the United Nations, when it deemed 2002 the “International Year of Ecotourism”. As recently as November 2018, the Cambodian government approved a draft national policy on ecotourism, which it hopes will help the “green gold” develop the economy whilst protecting the environment.

Meanwhile, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Mlup Baitong, a Cambodian environmental NGO, have been working with communities for more than a decade to help them gain legal permissions to establish CBET sites and thus protect their land from ELCs. Thanks to financial and capacity support from Mlup Baitong, communities like Chambok have transitioned from environmentally destructive charcoal-production to ecotourism. The private sector, too, has gotten involved in ecotourism, raising questions about the possible tensions between private and local community interests.

Perhaps the most important limitation, though, is the communities’ ability to take part in ecotourism as an alternative to resource-intensive or extractive livelihoods. Low education levels throughout rural Cambodia make it difficult for communities to capitalize on the growing stream of international tourists visiting the country, as villagers often do not speak English. Moreover, tourism, which requires discretionary income, may be an unfamiliar concept for those whose livelihoods depend on subsistence and smallholder farming. Convincing communities to give up traditional livelihood practices for an idea they have never encountered could be a challenge in itself.

Insecure land tenure also poses threats as communities struggle to fend off private interests and secure their own. Although becoming a legally recognized CBET site may help ward off ELCs, it is an expensive and time-consuming process that typically requires external support from NGOs or other outside actors.

Another challenge is accessibility. Due to weak infrastructure, getting from one part of the country to another typically involves a 6+ hour bus ride on poorly paved two-lane roads, with drivers narrowly weaving in and out of traffic along the way. Concerns over convenience and safety may prevent travellers from incorporating homestays into their short time in Cambodia.

Nevertheless, a number of community-based homestays have wilfully sprouted up across the country. In Mondulkiri province, the indigenous Panong people are inviting foreigners into their homes to get an authentic taste of life in rural Cambodia. Ecotourism was recently credited with helping to revive the endangered Mekong River population of Irrawaddy dolphins. According to conservationists, engaging local communities in conservation through ecotourism has been a crucial step for the species’ protection.

The endangered Irrawaddy dolphin has recently seen a comeback in the waters of the Mekong River, Cambodia. Image: CC-BY-SA-3.0, Stefen Brending.

These experiences have attracted a diverse bunch of visitors, including twenty-something year-old backpackers, national tourists seeking a break from the increasingly busy capital, and retirees looking for adventure away from the well-worn travel routes in Southeast Asia. While still a niche type of tourism, awareness of ecotourism and CBET in Cambodia is growing amongst travellers seeking out ‘authentic’ experiences off the beaten path.

Beyond the environmental conservation benefits it offers, CBET may provide a way to reclaim Cambodian history and culture from its tragic past while resisting the growing political and cultural influence of Chinese investment.

Community-based ecotourism is, of course, not a panacea to the country’s environmental and economic ills. Various other efforts are required to save Cambodia’s remaining forests from environmental ruin. But CBET does offer an alternative narrative for Cambodia, one that is rooted in the preservation of the country’s natural and cultural beauty, free from exploitation.

Katie Koerper

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