Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Friday, January 08, 2010

A Fresh Start

Asian villages carve out a new life

Wildlife Alliance - The thick forest, winding streams and rivers and abundant wildlife around Chi Phat Commune, pictured, made it a natural spot for an ecotourism business


The village of Tmatboey in the northern plains of Cambodia seemed to have little going for it. It lacked clean water; there were no real roads. The people toiled mostly at subsistence farming, barely scraping by.

The villagers didn't realize they had a valuable asset -- hiding in plain sight, so to speak: a tourist attraction that a niche group of international travelers would happily pay to see, even if it meant a stay in basic accommodations.

It's a bird. Actually, two: the long-legged giant ibis and the white-shouldered ibis, both among the rarest in the world. In the eyes of hard-core bird-watchers, they carry near-mythical status.

And now they're making money for Tmatboey. In 2004, the Wildlife Conservation Society, which credits itself with having saved the American bison a century ago, set up the Tmatboey Ibis Ecotourism Project to lure bird-watchers. During the most recent peak season, November 2008 to May 2009, providing services to bird-watching visitors brought in more than $12,000 all told, a fortune by local standards. About 30% went into a community fund for improving basics like education and plumbing; today, life in Tmatboey has been significantly improved by new wells, water pumps, roads and a new school.

In villages in many parts of Asia, nonprofit groups from around the world are putting into practice that time-worn proverb: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Rather than donating clothes or books, handing out mosquito nets or building schools, they're bringing money-making enterprises to rural Asian communities. Some involve training in activities such as sewing and bamboo craft; many are tourist-related.

Among environmental groups, there has been a shift in the past decade or so toward "a more integrated view of conservation and development," says Graham Bullock, a former ecotourism coordinator for the Nature Conservancy's China program. For instance, says Tom Clements, a technical adviser to the Wildlife Conservation Society's Cambodia program, the Tmatboey project works "by empowering local people to manage their own tourism enterprise, in a way that explicitly links revenue received to conservation outcomes."

The goals of each organization vary, of course, as do the circumstances of each village. "One size definitely does not fit all," says Mr. Bullock. But more organizations now seek "the participation and empowerment of local communities," he adds.

Below, a pair of projects aimed at helping villages help themselves.
Chi Phat Commune, Cambodia

The Chi Phat Commune -- a collection of four villages that's home to about 550 families, or nearly 3,000 people in all -- sits on the banks of the Piphot River in Cambodia's Cardamom mountains near the Thai border. Getting there from Phnom Penh takes four to five hours and involves two highways and a scenic ride upriver on a long-tail boat.

The villagers get by mostly on rice farming and fishing. To make extra money, some work as laborers on nearby plantations. Others sell livestock and other goods at the local market.

And some engage in illegal activities like poaching and logging -- which, along with land-clearing for farming, have exacted a heavy environmental toll. While large animals including elephants still roam the Cardamoms, their numbers -- along with those of scaly anteaters, wild pigs, deer, monkeys, bears and lizards known as Bengal monitors -- are dwindling. And so is their habitat, one of Southeast Asia's largest remaining tracts of rainforest.

After studying the Chi Phat village situation, the Wildlife Alliance, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit founded in 1994 with the goal of protecting wildlife, forests and oceans, concluded that poverty was the root cause of wildlife and forest loss in the Cardamoms. The alliance also saw that ecotourism -- the area's thick forest, winding streams and rivers and abundant wildlife make it ideal for mountain biking and trekking -- offered the possibility both of alleviating poverty and leading villagers to see value in the nature surrounding them.

Before Wildlife Alliance started to help develop Chi Phat as an ecotourism gateway (its Web site: www.mountainbikingcardamoms.com), though, it approached not only villagers, but also local authorities and tour operators to see if the project could fly. One challenge would be attracting customers; little has been written about the area. Another would be explaining ecotourism to the locals.

"Often throughout the world, NGOs enter a local community telling them that tourism is the answer to their problems and very much raising expectations, without any consultation with local tour operators to see whether there will actually be any market for what they are proposing," says Mark Ellison, who runs Asia Adventures, an independent tour operator. "Then one or two years down the line they sit back and scratch their heads wondering why after all the training, capacity building, meetings, and infrastructure development, no tourists are coming."

Today a handful of private companies make up the Friends of Chi Phat tour-operator group, which works with Wildlife Alliance to attract tourists. They market Chi Phat as a destination, handle reservations and bring guests to and from the village.

The "Friends" operators can charge tourists whatever they wish, but they pay upfront for services provided by the villagers, such as cooking, guiding, bike maintenance and lodging. About 80% goes to the villager providing the services; the remaining 20% goes into a community fund that improves the village's education, water supply, roads and so on.

Of course some training was needed at first: The villagers of remote Chi Phat were not accustomed to seeing tourists, much less catering to them. In fact, says Mr. Ellison, "until a few years ago many of the locals had not even seen a foreigner."

So in early 2008, Wildlife Alliance -- which established a permanent base in the village in January 2007 (after more than four years of research) -- and its tour-operator partners set up training programs in sanitation, hospitality, English, first-aid and waste management.

A bike mechanic, for instance, was brought in from Phnom Penh to teach villagers how to maintain a modern mountain bike. The hiking and biking trails were created by former hunters and loggers from the village, who now serve as trail guides. So far they've finished two mountain-biking trails (both there-and-back routes) and four circular trekking trails, including some night-camping sites. More trails are in the works.

Not surprisingly, old habits die hard. One villager who was asked to head the group for transporting guests on motorbikes was caught transporting something else instead: a wild pig. The local village council demoted him, with a warning that another transgression would get him kicked out of the project.

"People have been dependent on the forest for livelihoods and domestic needs for quite some time now -- and still are," says Oran Shapira, a 33-year-old Israeli working in Chi Phat for the Wildlife Alliance. "This will not completely change in one day or one year. It's a process."

Tourists stay in a handful of villager huts that have been converted -- with help from the Wildlife Alliance -- to accommodate guests. They're still rustic, but a little better-equipped than before. Squat toilets were added, for instance, so that guests didn't have to relieve themselves in the fields.

The first guests arrived early in 2008, and by year's end there had been about 200. Last year, the village received more than 670 guests, who biked, hiked, swam in the river and played volleyball with the locals.

Asia Adventures charges $250 a person for a three-day trip that includes a one-day mountain-biking excursion and transport to and from Phnom Penh. In 2008 the village collected about $7,000, says Mr. Shapira; last year, more than $19,200.

David Miller, who works for the Australian Taxation Office in Canberra, visited Chi Phat for three nights in December 2008. He wasn't expecting luxury: "You don't go visit a place in the middle of the jungle if you're expecting comfort all the way," he says.

He went on a guided hike one day and on a mountain-biking trip another. "Cycling through remote jungle, and not recognizing much of the flora, made it much more exciting" than biking back in Australia, he says. His tour guides were village men who didn't speak English but were friendly, communicated well with body language, and knew the forest like the back of their hands.

On his bike trip, he passed large swaths of burned land. (Fires not only clear land but also chase out animals, making them easier to catch.) "I don't know of many other ways to offer alternatives to these people so they will stop cutting down the rain forest," he says. "Action like ecotourism is better than no action at all."
Nawung, Indonesia

In 2006, an earthquake in central Java reduced many small villages to near rubble. But aside from some light damage to a few ramshackle buildings, the quake had little outward effect on Nawung, a rural village of about 500 people in the foothills near Yogyakarta. Below the surface, however, was a different story: Geological shifts caused the village's few natural wells to dry up.

It was a blow to farming, the village mainstay, already a challenge in the dry, hilly land. The village needed a new gig.

Enter Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund, a century-old German aid organization that bolsters rural communities through reconstruction, livelihood training and disaster-risk reduction. Some years ago in Kosovo, it reconstructed homes and taught returning war refugees to cultivate saffron as a cash crop.

At the time of the Java earthquake, more than half the people of Nawung earned less than $1 a day, says Sae Kani, an ASB program manager for Indonesia who specializes in disaster-risk-reduction education. Young villagers typically left to find work in retail, manufacturing, housekeeping or construction in places like Jakarta and Yogyakarta.

But in 2007, ASB noticed the village had something going for it -- a new road linking Nawung with Yogyakarta, 45 kilometers to the west, and other significant towns, including Sleman, to the northwest, and Wonosari, to the south. The road -- a scenic route through hills, forests and paddy fields -- significantly boosted the trade and tourism potential between Nawung and Yogyakarta, a hub for Indonesian arts and crafts, as well as other towns and villages.

Within this setting, ASB set out to help make the village self-reliant by teaching villagers to make crafts and foods that they could sell to nearby merchants and retailers.

The ASB team -- three field staff members and a project manager (plus, in the beginning, an architect and engineer) -- moved into the village and set up workshops to train villagers in four skills: bamboo weaving, stone carving, textile making and food preparation.

The food-preparation group is the largest, with about 50 members, all women. Tumiyem, a mother of two small children who like many Indonesians goes by a single name, is one of them. Through an interpreter she says that before the training, "we knew nothing about cooking snacks." Now, she says, the benefit is two-fold: The women can generate extra income and "we can gather with our friends regularly."

About 18 men studied stone craft; now nine of them churn out soap dishes, small statues and water fountains for gardens. The textile group -- three women and two men -- sew pillowcases and containers.

ASB helps with marketing and business connections, teaches bookkeeping and profit management, and provides a little start-up capital for each group. The food-preparation group, for instance, received about $550, part of which went to buy supplies.

Sales are climbing. Last year a woman named Atun who makes chips -- primarily from banana and cassava -- sold about $390 of her snacks from July to November, compared with $110 in the first six months of the year. The stone-masonry group, which sells most of its products to a pair of buyers from Yogyakarta, saw the biggest jump in sales: Between March and November, it pulled in nearly $900, up from about $110 for all of 2008.

ASB has spent about $100,000 on the project, along the way building things such as a small showroom to display the village's goods, production and storage houses for the bamboo-weaving and stone-masonry groups and a Web site (www.nawung.com). Its three staff members in Nawung will stay through the end of this year, when ASB plans to focus more on tourism development and improved marketing for village handicrafts.

The German nonprofit also set up a microfinance fund within each group so members can take out small loans. For instance in the food group, borrowers can obtain three-month loans at an interest rate of 5% a month. (The interest income is used to benefit the groups, such as for raw materials.) And villagers have a good track record of repaying the loans, which they've used for a variety of purposes. Last spring, for example, a member of the stone-craft group named Tukino borrowed $21 to buy fertilizer and pay his children's school fees.

Today, Nawung is on the upswing: New homes are springing up, streets are better paved and cellphones are a more common sight. More important, when ASB leaves, the skills it has taught will likely remain.
—Steve Mollman is a writer based in Asia.

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