Contributed by Munthit Ker, UNDP Cambodia
Siem Reap – When it was her turn, Tooch Yi maneuvered her wooden boat to the dock to pick up two tourists and began paddling away. Other women paddlers followed suit in an orderly fashion to give visitors a tour of the flooded forest in Kampong Phluk commune in northern Cambodia.
In this flooded community located on the edge of Tonle Sap Lake, women are getting a new lease on life through an eco-tourism scheme.
The project is part of a larger initiative to protect the flooded forest and fish habitat, and aims to provide the villagers with an additional means for a better life. Women, especially widows who are the sole breadwinners of their families, are the main target. They are among the most vulnerable group and in need of opportunities to earn income to prevent them from falling deeper in poverty.
Although they have adapted to their way of life already, the villagers face rather grim conditions in daily life here. Clean water is scarce. In case of medical emergency, they have to travel by boat, motorcycle and car to reach the nearest hospital in Siem Reap city, some 40 kilometres away. Since this is a flooded community, there is virtually no land space for rice farming and fishing is their way of life that dates back many generations already.
Ms. Chum Kreun taking tourists on a boat tour in the flooded forest in Kampong Phluk floating community.
For Tooch Yi, 46, her options are quite limited though. Because of motion sickness, she is afraid of going out to the lake to catch fish like others do and so most of the time she confines herself to raising pigs and growing vegetables at home.
“Taking tourists on a boat ride is the only other job that I have to make some money,” said Tooch Yi, who has an 82-year-old father and an aunt under her care.
On Cambodia’s tourist map, the famed Angkor temples are normally the most sought-after, making Kampong Phluk community an unlikely tourist attraction. But one draw there is the villages are made up of wooden stilt houses that line the canal, the main route for passenger and fishing boats traveling to and from the lake. Another lure is the sight of the lush green canopy of the Barringtonia trees that, when submerged during the rainy season, provide a perfect spawning ground for fish, the main source of protein for Cambodians.
One way to preserve the flooded forest, an area of about 5.5 hectares, is by turning it into a tourist destination, said 37-year-old Mut Siek, a member of the eco-tourism committee.
“This is the sanctuary for many kinds of birds and fish. Since we don’t have land to plant rice, fishing is the only occupation we have. That is why, in the common interest, the villagers join together in preserving it,” she said.
Under the scheme, 25 women identified as the poorest of the poor were picked to receive a boat each at a price tag of US $294 in credit. Under a mutual agreement, each woman makes a monthly payment of US $5 within five years after which they can own the boat outright.
On average, the site receives daily 200 visitors, who, after touring the famed Angkor temples, want to catch a glimpse of life in the flooded villages. Once they arrive at the wooden pier, which was built with UNDP’s support, the camera-toting tourists, two at a time, hop onto a small wooden boat to be given sightseeing in the flooded forest.
Sok Plang, a local council member, said that, in the spirit of equality, the eco-tourism committee has set up a system where the villagers take turns to get a shot at the opportunity to earn money through the scheme. For every one-hour ride, a woman paddler can earn US$ 4, including tips. It may not be a whole lot but could go a long way for those who do not have much to rely on, he said.
“At least they can now earn additional income that they can use to buy medicine or in an emergency,” he said. “That is why the conservation of this forest is so important to us here.”
The conservation and eco-tourism activities have received support from the Community Development and Knowledge Management for the Satoyama Initiative (COMDEKS), funded by the Japan Biodiversity Fund, implemented by UNDP and delivered by the GEF Small Grants Programme (SGP).