Home to rare wildlife species, including the endangered Siamese crocodile, the Cardamom mountains are also the habitat of about 25,000 people. Most of the people live in complete poverty and depend on the sale of illegal timber for their survival. Consequently, one can hardly see big trees in the region these days.
“If we talk about forest, there has been almost no trees until now because of lawless deforestation in the region during the 1980s and the 1990s,” said Uy Ai, chief of Chi Phat commune in Thmor Bang district, Koh Kong province.
In order to prevent the people from cutting down trees, an eco-tourism community was set up in his commune in early 2007 with the support of Wildlife Alliance, an NGO working on conservation in the area.
Touch Nimith, Wildlife Alliance’s head of the Community-Based Eco-Tourism project, said it is vital to change the commune into a tourism site so that the people will stop their dependence on trees and wild animals. Villagers are being encouraged to switch from their forest-dependent jobs to tourism-service careers.
“With eco-tourism, we can protect our existing natural resources,” he said. “So we need a mechanism, where tourists are needed in our preservation and protection efforts.”
“Community-Based Eco-Tourism in Chi Phat commune enables people to have extra work. We use guides, boats, moto-taxis, forest cooks, and ox carts for tourist services,” said Chi Phat CBET committee head Chhang Sok.
Chi Phat takes about five hours to reach from Phnom Penh. It is a commune composed of four small villages with 506 families, or 2,280, people, according to commune chief Uy Ai.
The villagers live by working on rice fields, picking up tree rubber in the forest and selling groceries on the roads in the villages. However, this work cannot guarantee their sustainability, so they have to go back to their traditional careers: cutting down trees.
However, after the Chi Phat CBET project came into existence, most of the people turned their attention from cutting down trees to serving tourists for profit.
Phiev Channy, who has run a guesthouse since the beginning of the CBET project here, said after the community opened its door for tourists, she could earn on average $100 per month from her guesthouse.
“I am happy because this job is not difficult,” she said. “We just clean the house and welcome guests.”
Most of the tourists coming and staying in the commune are Americans, British, Australians and Israelis, Phiev Channy said.
Rising from a hammock in the middle of the forest and sitting beside a pile of burning wood, an American tourist from California, Adam Waught, said he was amazed by his trip in the southern Cardamoms.
“It’s been good,” he said. “I mean everything I had expected, sleeping out here last night, listening to the sound of the jungle. It is amazing for someone like myself. I am from a city in America. We don't have a lot of opportunities to spend the night in a place like this, to see the sky full of stars and to spend the night in the middle of nowhere.”
Chi Phat had so far done a good job, but the community would do well to control the number of tourists coming in, he said. “Too rapid an increase in the number of tourists can spoil the untouched nature in the region.”