Notes from the Field

From Cambodia: Managing the Environment in the “Wild West”

July 25, 2007

Until recently, the Koh Kong region of Cambodia was known as their “Wild West ” – geographically isolated from the rest of the country, the surrounding Cardamom Mountains served as one of the last Khmer Rouge strongholds. The Cardamoms stretch to the western border with Thailand, and host dense forests and some of the world’s rarest wildlife species. The range forms the headwaters of several key watersheds, which support the majority of the region’s fisheries and agriculture activities. Along the main coastal estuary is one of the largest remaining mangrove preserves in Southeast Asia, which provides a sanctuary for fish and a cheap (but illegal) source of fuel for thousands of local fishing families. That combined with dozens of uninhabited islands and virgin beaches provides a setting that seems to be an ideal global tourism destination.

For now, Koh Kong remains a transit area – a rest stop for people and goods traveling to or from Thailand. It is also one of thirteen provinces in Cambodia where The Asia Foundation is initiating its Civil Society and Pro-Poor Markets (CSPPM) program, aimed at improving rural livelihoods among communities that are highly dependent on natural resources.

It’s striking to visit a place so rich in natural resources and to find so much poverty. The majority of the population lives in rural, isolated villages and relies heavily on fishing for daily survival. On average, poor villagers earn about one to two dollars per day, depending on weather and seasonal variations, the amount of fishing gear the family owns, and family members’ health. Some families own small boats and fishing gear, while others borrow equipment from neighbors or have to collect shellfish by hand. Nearly all of their daily income is spent on food, shelter, and sometimes education fees if their villages have schools. The local economy slows dramatically during monsoon season, when travel becomes difficult and there are fewer fish to catch.

Koh Kong is starting to attract much-needed investment, but local officials and citizens are struggling to manage growth and mitigate the negative impacts of development. Poor families are particularly vulnerable to losing their land to commercial development, and the natural resource base that they depend on for all of their subsistence and economic activities is shrinking as a result of ecological degradation and increased competition.

It is in this context that The Asia Foundation is implementing the CSPPM program. The Foundation, working through international and local NGO partners, will support local civil society initiatives aimed at increasing citizens’ stake in development and natural resource management decisions. Through constructive dialogue between civil society, the private sector and the local government, the Foundation hopes that local communities in Koh Kong will receive more benefits from future tourism and commercial development, and that they will play a greater role in managing the natural resources that they depend on.

Brooke Shull is a Program Officer for The Asia Foundation’s Environment program.

View all posts by Brooke Shull

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