The end is nigh…
After construction was (nearly) done, we had a little gathering to present our work and process to the greater RUFA community. Several of the community leaders from Pongro Senchey came all the way out to say a final goodbye (along with their very bored-looking teenage daughters). It was so nice to see them outside of the community, and they were so complimentary about working with us. I was on the verge of tears hearing the sweet things they had to say about us and our work, and one of my favorite collaborators was in full-blown sob mode by the end.
The next morning we took off at 7am for our retreat in Chi Phat, a community-based ecotourism site in the southwest of Cambodia, in the wilderness area of the Cardamom mountains. The Cardamom mountains and the Koh Kong Conservation Corridor represent a conservation area and one of the largest protected wilderness areas in Southeast Asia. Large mammals such as Asian elephants and sun bears still live and migrate through this region. However, Illegal logging has devastated Cambodia. Natural forest cover has been reduced to 55%, down from 73% in 1993. The landscape of the Kampot province, once covered in jungle, testifies to this. Deforestation contributes to erosion, flooding, and once a rainforest is fragmented it is more likely to have a reduction in biological and ecological diversity, and is more prone to fire. Illegal logging is still happening in Cambodia, and even in Koh Kong. The Cambodian government has very odd, easily misappropriated, and poorly enforced laws surrounding logging and forest conservation.
Community-based ecotourism is a fairly new concept for Cambodia, having been introduced in the last 10 years. The concept of community-based ecotourism is a very important one for a place like Cambodia that has been war-torn and was and still is subject to illegal logging and poaching in the aftermath. Illegal logging is the product of foreign businesspeople preying on the unclear laws and poor enforcement in Cambodia, as well as the lack of options for gainful employment within Cambodia’s undiversified economy. Rural Cambodians have limited access to the economic drivers of tourism and the garment industry — many poor rural Cambodian families rely on remittances from young workers they send into the city. Community-based ecotourism presents an opportunity for rural communities to steward the forests and landscapes that they live in, because it is a viable income source. Our professor, Ben, shared an article with us about the Chi Phat site that indicated many people in the community stopped poaching and logging because they found more stability in ecotourism. When we visited the site, we even met some guides that had moved from Phnom Penh to Chi Phat to be part of the organization!
In 2007 an NGO called Wildlife Alliance established the Chi Phat community-based ecotourism site, and built a bamboo structure with bathrooms, a kitchen, a bar, offices, and a gear storage space for the organization to be based out of. Another organization began an initiative to reforest the mountains around the area by building a nursery, and educating women in the area on tree production and planting.
To get to Chi Phat is quite a journey. We left Phnom Penh at 7 in the morning, rode a bus for 4 hours to a shack off the side of the road where ecotourism employees greeted us with Angkor beers. We then took a 2-hour boat ride down the (I believe) Stoeung Russei Chrum river. It was beautiful, bounded on either side by jungle, palms, and mangroves. We saw lobster and freshwater fisher-people along the way, as well as a little temple perched on a rock outcropping. Unfortunately I do not have photos from my journey because my phone was stolen. However, please enjoy the photos from David de la Cruz below!!!
Chi Phat was incredible, I will hopefully go back at some time in my life. I came down with a fever the night before we left, but didn’t tell Ben because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to go on the trip. Luckily Grayson got sick too, so we didn’t do the originally-planned two-night backpacking trip, I would have been in a bad way. I tried to do a mountain biking excursion on our first day and felt so nauseous and disoriented I had to turn back less than halfway through the first leg. I had a fever for four days and couldn’t keep food down.
When we got back to Phnom Penh I was diagnosed with chikungunya and salmonella, and had a hard time standing or sitting up for extended periods since I was so dehydrated. I had originally planned to travel for the week after the program ended on June 4th, but I was advised not to leave Phnom Penh or to be too far from medical care. I was able to change my flight to June 6th and came back a week earlier than I had intended, which was unfortunate but I think a smart move. I spent a week in Seattle on my dear friends’ couch catching up on sleep, HBO and comedy central shows, while taking antibiotics and trying to get my health back. It took a full week for me to ride a bike safely, and another three weeks to feel like I could work out safely.