With the burning and felling of vast areas of forested land across Cambodia comes the conversion of this land to agricultural use. Year by year over the last decade, the process has continued, using fire to burn the understory in the dry season, then to fell and remove the half burnt standing trees, gradually creating more light for agricultural crops. But in some cases the process is faster. Where Economic Land Concessions are given to foreign investors, clearance to grow hundreds of thousands of hecatares of rubber trees or palm for oil, has been completed in a matter of a year or two.
In terms of habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity and carbon emissions, this is a disaster. But for people too, to be expelled and disposessed of forest land means a future of insecurity and poverty, with no home and no livelihood. The monocrops which replace the forest are vulnerable to disease due to their inherent lack of diversity, as well as falling market prices. For Cambodians working on the crops this means downward pressure on already low wages, but more broadly the loss of forested land means that people no longer have the use of this natural resource, to manage it for the multiple benefits it can bring.
Under the 2002 Forest Law, Community Forestry in Cambodia offers an opportunity for communities to register to be given local forest land, and to manage this vanishing resource for their own needs. Where forest currently exists but may be under increasing threat of logging, poaching and fire, local knowledge and management are likely to be the best protection for the forest itself. However the establishment of community forests is lengthy, bureaucratic and technical, and people need help and support through the process. Practically, once a forest has been approved for community use, the village will produce a management plan with objectives which match their own needs and the needs of the forest. To be able to produce this plan there is a long period of consultation at all levels and a lot of expertise, information and data is needed. Objectives typically might be
Data collected will give a full picture of volumes, species’ distribution and urgency of work, so that areas or compartments can be identified and a practical work programme arranged for the years to come.
Ockenden Cambodia is supporting indigenous tribes and villages to establish 36 community forests. Because there are so many consultative and bureaucratic steps to achieving this goal, a lot of patience is needed as well as the management of expectations. Once government approval has been given, the time comes for the production of the management plan. Because this requires considerable professional time, it can be expensive. But the prize is very great. Community Forests act to protect remaining forest land, develop local skills and make communities increasingly self-reliant.