“I stopped illegal activities when they arrived” says Prom Heoung in excellent English. His dark eyes light up slowly and his prominent cheekbones reveal a bright smile. Proud of his English and of what he does for his community, like over 150 other villagers, Heoung has traded poaching and slash-and-burn farming for ecotourism since the Community-Based Ecotourism (CBET) project was launched in the village of Chi Phat five years ago.
Situated on the banks of the Piphot River, Chi Phat is postcard-perfect rural Cambodian village, home to 550 families, including Heoung’s. A quiet and peaceful place today, Chi Phat used to be a busy area for wildlife traffickers and loggers. Heoung was a member of their ranks, setting illegal forest fires for farmland and hunting wildlife to earn an income and feed his family. Two decades of civil war had ravaged his village, leaving a legacy of poverty, little to no education, and no sustainable income options.
Heoung remembers when, in the late 1980s, big logging concessions exploited the forest around his home and Cambodians came from all over the country to fell rosewood and hunt wildlife. These illegal activities were far more profitable than other farming activities – one cubic meter of rosewood would net a logger around $5,000 for their family. Tiger skins, elephant tusks, bear paws, pangolins and other expensive wildlife trophies could be easily traded for big payoffs. At its peak, thousands of families were living in Chi Phat, supplying the needs of the rich elite living in Phnom Penh and China.
However, for the past decade, people have been forbidden by law to pursue these activities. Fearing jail time, Heoung sought new opportunities in order for his family to survive. The CBET offered just such an opportunity. Launched in 2007, the CBET provides a better and more sustainable means of income for local community members through employment as guides, homestay operators, and cooks. When the project started, Heoung decided to join immediately as guide, leading adventurous tourists through the rainforest. With his extensive experience in the jungle, he knew every trail, tree and sound that the rainforest had to offer, the quickest way to reach the five waterfalls surrounding Chi Phat, and the best spots to view wildlife. For two years, he worked as a guide, studied English, and learned to see the beauty of the jungle that surrounded him that he had previously only considered a means of survival. In 2009, Heoung became chief of the CBET Committee, which manages the project with technical support from Wildlife Alliance, a position in which he still serves today. He is charged with providing the project with direction and management and ensuring the community and local authorities work together to promote and preserve the site – a far cry from stripping the forest of its resources, Heoung now protects the resources of the surrounding land.
After five years, Chi Phat has become the most successful CBET project in Cambodia and one of the most successful in Southeast Asia. It now has 13 guesthouses, 10 homestays and 160 km of trails for trekking and mountain biking. To date, Chi Phat has welcomed over 5,400 domestic and international visitors, generating over $205,000 in income to the community. This is due in no small part to the hard work of Heoung. His dedication to the success of the project has served as an example for the community, brought his family a good and steady income, and moreover, has contributed to the conservation and sustainable use of this rainforest jewel.
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