By Juliane Diamond
Gil-ad Chen, Wildlife Alliance’s Agriculture and Reforestation Project Manager, talks to former Worldwatcher, Juliane Diamond, to explain the organization’s agriculture and reforestation programs that work with former poachers and illegal loggers and help offer them alternative incomes from agriculture and reforestation. The centerpiece of Wildlife Alliance’s agriculture work is a commune in Southwestern Cambodia called Sovanna Baitong, a village created in the past decade to offer a long-term home for formerly landless families.
When and how did the agriculture and reforestation projects begin?
When Wildlife Alliance arrived in Cambodia, the initial focus was to provide an immediate response to the direct threats facing wildlife and forests. Then we realized that in order to protect forests and wildlife, we needed to provide options for a legitimate economic base to the families who had been displaced during the civil war and were living in the forests. That was when the Participatory Rural Appraisals came in. Researchers interviewed families living in the forests to determine their level of socioeconomic attainment, which resources they were using, whether they were legally or illegally using the resources, and whether they wanted to participate in a new village that would offer them access to land, training in agriculture, and basic social services (schools, clinics, etc.)
After the appraisal found significant interest, and families that were willing to join, the agricultural projects began in 2003 with planning and assessment of land to locate the village. In 2004, the infrastructure work started and the first families arrived from a variety of informal camps and settlements in the Southern Cardamoms Protected Forest to the new farming plots at Sovanna Baitong. The total number of families joining in 2004 was around 108. In 2005, 84 more families joined.
In 2005 we also began installing the irrigation, the main pump station, and the reservoir. The families began learning agriculture techniques and we started teaching them field management. After years of conflict much of the community’s agriculture knowledge had been lost, so we had to train them in everything from seeds to weeds to pest control, to marketing, to planning for market sales. In 2007, another wave of families joined the village.
All the families had previously been living in the forest, as poachers, or illegal logging traders. So the transition to long-term agriculture was a big shift for most of them. In the lots they built their houses, and we put a pipe from a main station all over the village, which is more than seven kilometers away, so everyone would have access to water and irrigation. We didn’t use a bulldozer; instead we offered the community the opportunity to dig for themselves and be paid for their work. We worked with them, collaboratively, as a way to keep the money local.
We started the first season in October 2005 when we prepared the rows and planted and incorporated irrigation. There was a problem with the quality of the soil so we developed a five- year soil improvement plan. The soil was very acidic so we added organic material, compost, and cow manure in the rows and then we grew crops, then the next cycle we opened them again and added more organic material, closed them and planted. The same mass was improved in each cycle and after three years we saw great results. Through this process over the years the soil will only improve.
We also taught how to move the water in the low lands, and how to preserve the water in the high lands. We planned the drainage and we taught them the different vegetable options to grow, i.e. cucumber, tomato, eggplant, beans, leafy vegetables, and fruit trees. One area in each plot is equipped with drip irrigation for vegetable growing (0.1 hectare), and one area is for fruit and intercropping with leafy vegetables (.4 hectare). We advise maintaining one meter gaps between vegetable rows and five meters between trees.
We also taught them how to have a constant supply for the market by dividing up the planting to harvest every two weeks so when one is ready for harvest the other is just starting to grow, i.e. cucumber, long bean, radish. We also provided a formula to plan for market sale and instruction on how to plant accordingly, for example peppers and hot peppers are longer term and can be harvested every half year.
Their land has two gardens, one for market and one for home use, such as water grass. For the rainy season we also taught them how to build plastic housing for roofs.
All the families in the village also have access to health care and all the children go to school. The families are very happy and they already have one generation of the older children marrying.
How are the projects progressing? Are the villagers supporting themselves now and do they have access to markets to sell their products?
When we began, the entire project had to be supported by Wildlife Alliance with the help of outside donors. Currently we are subsidizing their operations about 50 percent and then next year it will be 25 percent. Eventually we hope to not have to subsidize and they will be self-sufficient. They have already been able to redo their houses; they have developed small businesses from our help and have steady income. The agriculture represents on average about 50% of their income; additional sources of income have been generated from living in the community. For instance, individual households have established small side businesses, from services (barbershops, construction services, etc.) to sales of small goods such as ice cream brought in from neighboring towns.
We also helped them develop a marketing committee that takes the agriculture products in a truck to sell in markets when the local markets are oversupplied. Many traders recently are now coming to the village to buy themselves because the vegetables are popular.
Is this program successful enough to be replicated? If so, could it be done without the help of Wildlife Alliance?
The project has been very successful and we are currently planning to start another project in Trapeang Rung, based off what we have learned from this project. Although our plan is to allow the villages to be self-sufficient we recognize it is necessary for Wildlife Alliance or any NGO to stay with the community and help them manage themselves until they are confident to do it all themselves. But we also see that other families nearby are benefiting from the village as well because the income stays in the region.
What does your role entail when managing this project?
Our role now involves mainly managing the infrastructure but when we started we worked with economists and local experts including agriculture technicians from local universities. We invited technicians to work with us and each became responsible for 20 families. For about three years they worked together to build the project.
Today we have one agronomist, three field technicians and one community developer, all Cambodian. Wildlife Alliance is now still subsidizing and taking care of infrastructure as well as helping them to manage the activities and the funds, but an increasing portion of the management is by the members of the community itself.
You also direct a reforestation project. What does that program involve?
For the restoration work, I took a field technician and two agronomists who had worked in the Community Agriculture Development Program at Sovanna Baitong and trained them to do reforestation. One technician focused on the nursery, one on field preparation and one on planting and care. The nursery is located in Chi-Phat and most of our restoration work is there as well. It is a strategic planting that is done where needed and corresponds with our work to stop illegal development in protected areas. After we stop the development, usually the area has already been destroyed and therefore needs replanting. That is when we move in and immediately start to restore the area.
Last year we were able to restore 160 hectares near Chi Phat and 20 hectares between Tatai and Koh Kong.
What do you see as the future of these projects? Will they be able to function in the future without the help of Wildlife Alliance?
Yes, that is the idea; we will keep an eye and help them as much as they need. But we hope to back out and only have one or two representatives to help them if needed, we won’t totally leave. We also hope to help them with another area of economic development to pay for infrastructure costs, such as cash crops like essential oils.
Juliane Diamond is a former Worldwatcher and Development and Communications Associate at the Wildlife Alliance.
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