Another long trip to some (still…) beautiful forest areas.
22.07.2008 32 °C
Time flies and I can’t believe its been a month now since I wrote the last story. Work has been busy and we have been around a lot to meet with other NGOs and some of the big international organisations involved in business development projects out here to hear how they are working and see some of their projects to help us shape our work a little more. It was quite interesting to see their different approaches and also to get an idea what works and what doesn’t. Not all projects have been successful as you might have imagined and it really confirmed that throwing lots of money (in the form of training or more material things like cows for example) out at communities is one of the things that really doesn’t work, if its not part of a longer development and support process. These aren’t new conclusions but unfortunately its still happening (not always though). We also went to see a small community shop in a pretty village only accessible by boat via the Mekong (no roads), which was set up as a cooperative to make it easier for villagers to buy products locally instead of having to travel a long way to the market. This is one of the things our NGO partners want to do as well.
Photo: A few thatch houses in the village we visited
Photo: This boat was the only way to get there - nice ride!
From there we went on to Phnom Penh to meet some of the bigger development organisations and talked a lot about agriculture. It has quite good potential, given the fact that over 60% of the economy is based on it but focussed on rice, which means a lot of imports of fruit and vegetables. So we’ll probably get into that as well, if we can alongside other areas like fish products.
Then I went on to a workshop up north close to the Laos border in a place called Stung Treng, a small town on the Mekong, 9 hours by bus from Phnom Penh (and that was on a good road!). Thinking about it I realised that this is not so much less than flying from London to Bangkok but without the free drinks and food and a very different entertainment programme, i.e. karaoke and Khmer comedian DVDs on high volume all the way. There were quite a few foreigners on the bus as well, headed for Laos. Two Dutch and two British guys were exchanging travel plans behind me with a bit of a surprise for the Brits who heard from the Dutch that there aren’t any visas available at the border, which they didn’t know and of course didn’t get any in Phnom Penh. Bad news rather late during this journey but I think they probably made it anyway – maybe it cost them a bit more but the right amount of money makes almost anything possible – unfortunately (not for the travellers I mean but in terms of the corruption problem in general).
However, the countryside east of the big Tonle Sap lake and Mekong heading north is very different from the west side where Battambang is. Here its pretty flat with plenty of rice fields in large open areas, whereas there it’s a lot more hilly with large forest areas. The workshop therefore was on enterprise development for ‘non-timber forest products’ (sounds strange but means basically anything out of the forest, that’s not hard wood, e.g. honey, rattan, resin, berries, …). Traditionally, people have been collecting these products for a long time but usually for family consumption only or sometimes sold some but without much processing to add value. Also conservation of the resources wasn’t high on the agenda.
Photo: View over the Mekong near Stung Treng - its big!
Photo: And on the way to the village - via this wobbly wooden swing bridge. (keine Angst Mama, war alles ok!)
So on the first day of this 3-day workshop we went out on a village visit to hear from the community how they work towards commercialising forest products in sustainable ways to increase people’s incomes. It was in a beautiful tropical forest environment on the borders of the Mekong, with some of it already underwater from the rising river. These are very unique habitats and breeding grounds for the ever decreasing fish populations.
Photo: At the village meeting
Once the meeting with some people from the village committee started, they also talked a lot about threats of ongoing deforestation by large (foreign) private logging companies. As it happened in other countries with lush tropical rain forest, the government grabs the land and sells logging concessions for I don’t know how many millions, not caring much about any of the consequences, like environmental or purely the livelihoods of these villagers. NGOs have been active for years now to help communities to get THEIR community forest areas registered to be able to keep them. But for some reason this process is very slow, while concessions are sold much more quickly. Also, the size of the community forest areas is tiny compared to the private ones. What has already started to happen and I could see along the road, is that at some point the logging companies come in, take all the wood out and start plantations for cash crops, like oil palm or cassava. This looks still green but the natural habitat is destroyed and the income potential for local people isn’t great, either.
I’ve seen documentaries about this in other countries on TV but seeing it for real out here, really brought it home. Also because a lot of the forest is still there, the areas have been sold but logging hasn’t started, yet. And then saw all this and imagined what it might look like in 5 years time – not good. And there was a Philippino forester on the workshop as well talking about how all this happened in the Philippines years ago and only now the government stopped all logging because of too many casualties in floodings and land slides. And the problem does simply lie at government level with very, very limited scope for any NGO or international organisation to do anything effective.
The problem are the big $ involved throughout the entire chain of government, local - provincial – national. Everybody has to buy their way in somewhere as well as every time they want to move up and this is normally more than they can afford, so ‘extra’ payments occur everywhere, any time and for anything given the low government wages and the need to top it up a little. And as long as wages are like this and the dollars rule, practice will stay as it is with people not caring so much about what they do for their people and country but simply do what they get the most money for. Having met a few government people here in lower positions (like e.g. one of my last taxi drivers), you can’t blame them because they care for their families as good as they can – the ones to blame are sitting much higher up.
To end on a positive note, the rest of the workshop showed that small things are developing and in some areas people manage to brand and market forest products quite well, which was great to see. I really hope that we can get our project in Battambang to go into the same direction and help to set up sustainable small-scale businesses but to get there is still some way away …