Twelve months – that was the time given by my wife. “Go to Cambodia,” she said, “and come back when the work is done. Be safe.” She was not happy about this mission. Cambodia is still loaded with landmines and my past experiences there were not all good memories. But I somehow like these challenges: one year to reforest 100 hectares. But believe me or not, tree planting is not as easy as digging a hole and sowing a seed in it. It is slightly more complicated and this is precisely why I accepted the mission. It is my job.
First of all, we can’t just plant trees anywhere due to the general lack of secure land tenure across large parts of the country. Selecting suitable lands took the team the first six months of the mission. The sites we chose were degraded areas of community forest areas on the edge of the dry forests of the Northern Plains of Cambodia, and a degraded flooded forest inside a Community Fishery adjacent to the Prek Toal core area of the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve – globally renowned for its impressive array of avian fauna.
Reforestation site in Kampong Thom, Cambodia. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI
We strived to boost the involvement of local communities in every step of the reforestation process, to make sure the project was more than a “one-shot” but also a scheme that can be replicated afterwards. After eight years working with international cooperation projects funded by western taxpayers, I can’t stand the way “development” is implemented by those who pretend to know what’s best for locals. As a result, international cooperation is accumulating countless failures to alleviate poverty or reduce deforestation. So I decided to make it my way for once. It was not only about creating jobs in rural areas, it was also about giving back some dignity to these people with whom I shared more than just moments. I have deep respect for them. They know the name of every edible plant in their environment, they know their resources are depleting. They just miss the means to act, financial means and also sometimes technical skills. This is where organisations like FFI still have a role to play.
My knowledge of the Khmer language allowed me to understand what was discussed in meetings or in the field. And I expressed the need to see locals saving themselves through their own efforts, not waiting for another NGO to come along and give out petty cash. Yes we brought in some money but community forestry members were responsible for collecting seeds, constructing the nurseries, filling polybags with a decent medium, watering seedlings for four months and finally participating in the tree planting. They recorded everything and they now know the value and the effort required in every step of the project. “Let them do” was our motto. And this approach made the reforestation effort one of the cheapest ever, US$360 per hectare, where literature on other projects in the region regularly cite $1,000 or above as the cost of reforesting a single hectare.
The challenge was reforest 100 hectares in one year. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI
We planted over 100 hectares and 140,000 seedlings. In few years the pioneer species such as Cassia siamensis and Peltophorum dasyrrhachis will shade out the grass layer that competes with seedlings for water, sunlight and nutrients. Forest environmental conditions (shade, moisture, organic matter) will be recreated allowing natural germination to happen. A rising understorey of climax forest trees will replace the pioneers, along with a dense layer of naturally established trees and the so called “seed rain” brought in by birds or rodents will actually be the final forest composition. It is only a first generation that we planted. Without a little bit of help, those sites would have needed 50 years to regenerate.
Seedlings planted in Kampong Thom. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI
Since I left Cambodia, I have kept in contact with my former teammates. They went to check the sites where we sweated together and the seedlings are green and growing now reaching more than a metre high. Time will tell if we are successful. Seedlings have to survive the critical first dry season. The team can proceed without me now. My job was not to stay there forever and do the job for them. I spent 12 months reinforcing the capacities of a team of local foresters. They have been with me through the whole process of a reforestation project. I considered my part of the mission done. So I left happy and proud of that teamwork. May they all be sincerely thanked here.
It was not rocket science in the end. It was more about adapting the project to the reality of farmers and community forest members. It sounds basic but it is rarely conceived that way. “Development” is made complicated; although it is not easy it should at least be kept simple. It is too often conceptualised. Sometimes I feel we should just look back to see how the old timers used to work and manage their lands and gardens. Development projects tend to reinvent the wheel while there is plenty of know-how available locally. Someone said once, “a tradition is an innovation that worked”. Development projects should make sure beneficiaries are able to replicate models alone once we withdraw, and projects should demonstrate that deforestation is not necessarily a fatality that cannot be reversed. I can say today that in Cambodia we did it.