A drive 20 kilometers south of Kampot town brings you to the scenic village of Prek Thnout, where all kinds of trees grow along the ridges of Bokor Mountain. Step inside the forest, and you could wind up amid the sharp thorns of the rattan palm.
Since mid-2008, thousands of blue-foliaged rattan plants have been planted in rows along the mountain in Prek Thnout commune, where the large trees and water important to the plant are in abundance.
“If we don’t replant it, or use it in a disorderly way, it will vanish,” Roth Rem, head of the commune’s community protection group, said of the palm, which is woven in strips to make chairs, cabinets and tables for local markets in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
For years, Kampot province has been grown the most rattan, though in recent years it has been heavily harvested for export to Vietnam. More than 20 species of rattan grow in Cambodia’s forests, including the most popular, known in Khmer as Sorm and Preah Phdao, which are solid with large trunks.
The Prek Thnout protection group, supported by the World Wildlife Fund, is the first community to begin replanting rattan, on 40 hectares across three communes: Prek Thnout, Prek Krek and Chornghorn.
The conservation group will widen rattan production to Koh Kong, Preah Vihear and Kampong Thom provinces, though younger plants can’t be harvested.
“Rattan can grow up to 100 meters long,” Roth Rem told VOA Khmer as he walked along a small footbath beaten into the forest.
In Prek Thnout, 800 families have joined the protection group, getting advice on how to plant rattan and properly harvest it. Of them, 20 families use rattan to build furniture to supplement their farming and fishing incomes.
“One chair costs 32,000 riel,” about $8, said Dom Phea, a rattan producer. “It helps us make a better living.”
Despite its popularity here, the quality and types of rattan furniture made in Kampot province remain less competitive against other countries, due to insufficient equipment and techniques.
World Wildlife Fund officials say they will look for cooperation among rattan manufacturers to provide more training to villagers, with the aim of exporting half its rattan products to markets in the US, Europe and Japan by 2015.