Monday, March 29, 2010

Cambodian Women Organize To Protect Ancestral Rainforest

This is one from the vault. It's about an experience that I had in Cambodia, back in 2006. Enjoy.

During my two-hour motorbike trip to Blor Borcam of Cambodia's Rattanakiri province, I saw rolling lush rain forest, farmers planting rice, and stilted grass hut villages scattered about. The beauty was striking, but the forest was broken up like green islands, surrounded by an ocean of hacked and naked landscape. It was the most extreme deforestation that I have ever seen. How could this happen?

My long and bumpy journey ended, and my first inclination was to wipe the caked red dirt from my face so the real color of my skin could be seen. After washing in a stream, I was greeted by a trainer named Kol Propey who guided me to a group of indigenous village women who were in the midst of a community meeting. They were organizing themselves to stand up to greedy savages who have been illegally harvesting their forests all in the name of quick profit. We exchanged greetings, and the women began to share their stories.

It began when the villagers noticed that their forests were mysteriously disappearing. At first, they had no idea of who was to blame, but as time went on, the players became clear.

The first major incident was when Cambodian soldiers approached the village saying they needed forty hectares of land for handicapped soldiers. The villagers were not so easily convinced, so one night the military gifted them with an abundance of meat and alcohol. They partied into the night, and when the majority of the villagers reached intoxication, the soldiers convinced them to sign a petition saying they would hand over their land. The petition was approved by the Cambodian government, and the villagers lost 450 hectares of their ancestral rainforest to the woman in charge of the raid: the Minister of Finance’s sister who sold the pillaged lumber to Vietnamese furniture companies.

A Vietnamese company paid Cambodian military to convince another village that a nearby forest was filled with bandits, making it too dangerous to enter. The villagers believed the lie and stopped going there. Two years later, when some villagers decided to ignore their fears and investigate, there was no forest left: just scorched stumps and pocked barren land.

I listened to similar stories for an hour. I knew their accounts were just scratching the surface and I was nauseated. They estimated that 100,000 hectares of their rainforest have been destroyed.

Community organizer Kol Propey, my aforementioned host, facilitates community workshops for these women. A typical workshop consists of team building activities, open forums where forestry and landownership issues can be addressed, and to formally write complaints as a group so their messages can be advocated to the Cambodian government.

Kol said their progress was difficult, especially when she started to train them several years before. Villagers were afraid to talk because their illiteracy and lack of education left them with little confidence. Things are starting to change though. She sees how the workshops are making them a closer and stronger team. Their trust, excitement, and belief in themselves are growing, and they are starting to be more active in the organizing of their community. It is getting easier to protect their forests and to protect themselves from sinister characters that could have easily swindled them of their land in the past.

I was in a state of mourning for the rainforests, yet I felt inspired. These women are standing up for themselves and are learning to empower their community. Their battle is difficult, but the training of their minds and honing of their collective will is giving them the confidence to succeed.

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