Reforestation of vital Cambodian habitat

At the centre of Cambodia lies Tonle Sap lake. It is a geographical heart but also an environmental heart, harbouring both a wide diversity of species and driving a massive economy reliant on the fish-rich waters. As such the area was recognised as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1997.

Cambodia produces around 400,000 tonnes of freshwater fish per year, the majority of which comes from Tonle Sap. During the wet season in Cambodia the Tonle Sap increases by up to five times its dry season size, creating a vast expanse where fish can breed. Fishing during this time is illegal, meaning at the end of the wet season the numbers of fish are huge because they have been prolific. But in recent years catches have been declining as destruction of the flooded forests that surround the northern areas of the lake have been destroyed.

With the support of the USAID funded Cambodia HARVEST (Helping to Address Rural Vulnerabilities and Ecosystem Stability) programme, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has been working to help protect this fragile environment and recreate these flooded forests. In an on-going initiative involving eight lakeside villages, 40,000 seedlings are being planted to restore 30 hectares of formerly forested areas.

Villagers transporting Barringtonia seedlings Siem Reap Cambodia. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI

Villagers transporting Barringtonia seedlings Siem Reap Cambodia. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI

The management of this project took a new and innovative approach, involving the communities themselves in all aspects from planning to implementation.

Arnaud Guidal, FFI’s Reforestation Specialist, explains: “We sought the involvement of the villagers to help plan our reforestation activities – where were the best areas to work, what size area was manageable, which species to plant, and how and when the work should take place. We also gave them a financial stake. Rather than purchasing seedlings from a private entrepreneur or outside contractors, we supported the community to do the work. For instance, community participants collected wild seedlings during slack periods in their agricultural year – this gave them an off-season activity, and brought in an additional income.

Villagers planting Barringtonia seedlings Siem Reap Cambodia. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI

Villagers planting Barringtonia seedlings Siem Reap Cambodia. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI

“Integrating the community into the planning and implementation has made this project both more effective for us as conservationists and has also given the villagers a sense of ownership and empowerment – the perfect ingredients for a successful project.”

FFI’s approach has always been to consult with local communities, who are often the true experts on their environment. Whether we are looking for rare mammals in Myanmar or helping to recreate forests in Cambodia, local input is crucial. Villagers living around the Tonle Sap are well aware of both the benefits the flooded forest provides and the problems created by losing it.

Eam Rom, chief of Roka Yea village succinctly summed up their environmental importance. “Most of our inundated forest has now disappeared. We rely on this habitat and want to restore it because it is vital for us. These forests protect our houses against storms and waves, provide a refuge and food for fish during their spawning season, and give us wood for fuel and minor construction.”

Leong Keoum, vice chief of Kamphem village added, “As well as these things the forest allows fisherman to travel safely when the lake is hit by storms, and they help with the problem of erosion.”

“This kind of approach is working well and can significantly contribute to the protection and sustainability of this unique environment,” said Matt Maltby, FFI Project Manager for Cambodia HARVEST Programme.