Amid deforestation & land disputes, Pact helps Cambodians save their trees, way of life

September 1, 2016

In the shade behind a small yellow house, ducks are napping and chickens are pecking the dirt. On a line nearby, clothes washed with well water are drying in the sun. Except for palm trees rustling in the breeze and an occasional passing motorbike, it’s quiet.

This is Ly Pheak’s corner of Cambodia, in the western province of Pursat, where he lives with his wife and three children. For decades, this has been Ly’s home, and for much of that time, he has made his living cultivating a nearby plot at the edge of a forest community called Kla Kropeu.

Although he has no title to his land, which is common in Cambodia, Ly figured it would always be his family’s.

Until everything changed.

“It started years ago with rumors,” he recalls. “People said a land concession company was coming. They said we’d have to leave.”

Across Cambodia, forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Private companies, many of them foreign, are obtaining land rights in the form of concessions from the government, cutting trees and displacing citizens. That has created a secondary problem: When communities know their valuable trees could soon be taken, they often move to cut them first.

With the country’s deforestation rate now estimated to be the fifth worst in the world, Pact is helping Cambodia to conserve its forests – for the good of the environment as well as for people who’ve lived there for generations.

Ly Pheak stands at a boundary marker on land in Kla Kropeu that was once forested.

“It’s hard to overstate the consequences of what’s happening,” says Zach Center, Pact’s Cambodia country manager. “Deforestation contributes to biodiversity loss, climate change and drought, and for families that are displaced, they lose neighbors, livelihoods and stability.”

With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, Pact’s Coming Together for Forests project, or CTF, is building a national grassroots network of forest communities, helping them to advocate for themselves, to protect forested land, and to build sustainable livelihoods that make use of Cambodia’s natural resources but do not destroy them.

Launched two years ago, CTF brings together forest community members and government officials for quarterly meetings where they learn, forge connections and gain confidence to take on forest issues. Experts explain land laws, how government processes and decision-making are supposed to work, how deforestation contributes to broader environmental and social problems, and how participants can share what they’ve learned to mobilize their communities. The group’s members – about 150 people from across the country – also exchange information about what’s worked in their areas. Many have been championing forest conservation for years.

Members of the CTF forest network come from across Cambodia. At one recent meeting, they learned how to use Facebook to organize and stay in touch between gatherings.

“Knowing their legal rights can make a big difference for these communities,” explains Pact’s Yorth Bunny, a Coming Together for Forests project coordinator.

Says Center, “These are people who’ve long cared about the environment and their communities, but to be effective advocates, they need knowledge and support.”

That applies to the public officials taking part, too, Center adds: “While corruption is a huge part of the problem, there are many people in the government who want to do the right thing. They just don’t always know how.”

Participants also share information about sustainable products and businesses they rely on — from honey to ecotourism — that don’t involve timber.

“We’re helping people to develop livelihoods that actually protect forests,” Bunny says.

At a recent CTF livelihoods fair, network members displayed their non-timber products.

Between meetings, members stay in touch and receive additional training.

Representing more than 65 communities in 21 provinces, they make up Cambodia’s only national network of forest people. Many are working to gain protected status for local forested land, giving their communities the right to patrol for illegal logging.

Government officials who are members say they decided to take part in CTF because of Pact’s reputation in Cambodia as a fair convener of stakeholders with a record of improving governance and people’s lives. For the past four years, Pact has implemented a project called PROCEED, which has markedly improved transparency, accountability and citizen inclusion in Cambodia’s sub-national governance. Working through local NGOs, PROCEED provides training for both citizens and local government officials on their roles and responsibilities. Before the project, officials rarely listened to citizens’ concerns, and citizens were too afraid to voice them. The public often wasn’t even invited to local government meetings.

"Now we are doing so many things differently,” says Samrith Eng, who heads Pursat’s municipal council. In addition to inviting citizens, the council now holds its meetings closer to villages and reports on its activities. It includes time for the public’s comments and questions and brings municipal line staff to help answer them. It’s hosting public forums on specific issues and is even subject to performance evaluations by constituents.

“Before, we didn’t know about doing these things. No one told us,” Eng says. “Now we’re on the same side as citizens, working together.”

Pursat's municipal council now holds its meetings closer to where citizens live.

Another Pact project, TRANSMIT, recently developed an app to help Cambodians track concerns they’ve raised to local officials.

“People know and trust Pact,” says Snguon Samean, a commune chief in Kampong Chhnang province and a member of the CTF network. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t want to be a part of this group. Land and forest issues are very sensitive and volatile here.”

Samean has organized public meetings to share what she’s learned through the network and she’s posted boundaries marking protected land to prevent encroachment.

CTF network members sometimes come to meetings with eviction notices from international companies that are moving in. Understanding their rights and options is critical.

But she says conservation is an uphill battle. To win favor with voters before a recent election, for example, another commune chief allowed people to grab and clear protected land.

And efforts like Samean’s can be dangerous. Forest and land rights defenders in Cambodia have been killed for their activism.

“Forest conservation is important. We are already having drought and fires,” Samean says. “But some people are not happy with my work.”

Through the CTF network, Pact also identifies specific cases in which it intervenes to help communities protect and remain on their land.

Among them is the case of Kla Kropeu, where Ly, who is a member of the CTF network, lives and farms.

For years, Ly and his neighbors feared eviction, unsure whether Kla Kropeu would be swallowed up by a massive nearby land concession.

“We could see the company’s activities,” Ly recalls. “We were very worried.”

Ly and his neighbors make regular checks around Kla Kropeu to keep tabs on the community’s land.

Not knowing whether his land would still be his come harvest, Ly stopped planting. He watched some of his neighbors give up and leave altogether. With others, he protested, blocking local roads to try to get authorities to help.

All it got them was threats.

Finally, in 2012, the government designated 400 hectares in Kla Kropeu as protected forestland. But it wasn’t a victory. Rather than to the forest, the designation was applied to land where dozens of families were living and farming, including Ly’s. Some government officials said the families could stay, while others said it meant they had to go.

Ly and his wife talk with their neighbors.

After Ly raised Kla Kropeu’s struggle during a CTF meeting, Pact, along with a small group of local organizations, began working to help. Drawing on trust and relationships that Pact established during the PROCEED project, it brought together local officials and community members and worked to guide the case to resolution.

“Besides helping families that are directly affected,” Center explains, “these cases help to build a constructive dialogue among government authorities, communities and NGOs. The hope is that this helps in future cases.”

Eventually, officials agreed that families who could show they’d long been living or farming in Kla Kropeu would be allowed to stay – and they’d receive formal recognition of their land rights.

Ly's wife mills rice in an outbuilding on their land.

Ly takes a break in the shade with his wife and one of their children.

For Ly and his wife and children, it has made all the difference.

“This is our home,” Ly says. “We know this land. We know what to do in the rainy season and when it’s dry.

"We know each other.”

Photos by Brian J. Clark for Pact.