A short drive from Koh Kong town, along the western coast, brings you to mangroves filled with thousands of trees, their many shades of green floating on the surface of the sea.
Fish, crabs and snails hide themselves among the roots of mangrove trees that have been replanted here in an effort to attract tourists.
Since 2001, nearly 1,000 hectares of mangrove have been replanted at the Koh Kong Wildlife Sanctuary, by the people of Peam Krasaop commune, in an effort to restore trees cut down by villagers.
“If we hadn’t replanted the trees, the people in the commune would have starved, because they had destroyed almost all the mangrove trees, which destroyed the fish stock,” said Chut Tech, chief of Peam Krasaop. “But now the trees are successfully protected, and people in the commune have a better living.”
Mangroves grow only along the seacoast, sheltering aquatic life and providing protection from wind and storms.
During the 1990s, Koh Kong province lost nearly 45,000 hectares of mangrove, as villagers cut down trees to create charcoal for export to Thailand. The loss of the mangroves damaged the coastal ecosystem, diminishing marine life and the livelihoods that depended on it.
Peam Krasaop began replanting the mangroves with the help of various non-governmental agencies and the government. The trees can grow up to 10 meters in height and reproduce naturally when their fruit falls into the pounding sea.
Cambodia has more than 40 types of mangrove trees. Koh Kong boasts the largest area of the ecosystem. And with a decade of replanting behind it, the province has produced the best mangroves in the country, according to the International Development Resource Center.
The mangroves have become popular destinations for tourists, who find fish holes in place of charcoal holes.
“The mangroves have become the best potential tourism spot in Koh Kong,” said Bun Heav, director of the province’s tourism department. “Local tourists are heading to see mangrove trees when they come to visit the province.”
An estimated 54,000 people in 2009 visited Peam Krasaop commune, an increase of 40,000 from the previous year. About 90 percent of them were Cambodian.
The commune of Peam Krasaop has 301 families. Many villagers here contributed to the destruction of the mangroves, but now they earn livings from tourism and fishing provided by the renewed coastal forests.
While some are satisfied with their new jobs, only a small number are employed by ecotourism. Those who earn a living fishing have found the fish in decline, Chut Tech said. That’s why the commune hopes to open more tourist sites, he said.