Cambodia: Fresh funds help indigenous group create eco-lake

26 Aug 2010

Caption: Som Doeun, a 39-year-old Kuoy villager from Romchek, holds a fish he caught in Choam Prei lake.
Credit: UNDP

An indigenous community in one of Cambodia's poorest provinces has received new funding in its effort to set up an eco-tourism site at a lake that was recently returned to villagers from private ownership.

The mostly indigenous ethnic Kuoy residents of Romchek village in northeast Preah Vihear province are to receive a share of almost US$20,000 in grant money to invest in environmentally sensitive visitor sites in the pristine forestland around Choam Prei lake.

Choam Prei, used by the Kuoy as a cattle-grazing site and water and food source, was returned to the 213 families of Romchek from private ownership this year after a process that involved local, provincial and central government.

A plan to develop the 70-acre lake into a site for hosting tourists was approved in June 2010 by the Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme, implemented globally by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

“The site has a lot of potential for the entire village," said Ly Setha, a project officer for a provincial civil society organization, Ponlok Khmer, that will channel funds from the small grant into eco-tourism projects for the area.

"Villagers hope there will be a spill-over from the tourists coming every year that will allow them to earn income by selling local products, and that will help them improve their livelihoods,” said Mr. Setha.

The two-year project, from 2010-2012, aims to accommodate tourists to carry out conservation-related research, or to experience the wild animals and plant life around the lake. Activities include production of publicity material, building campsites, and training community members to become tour guides.

Ponlok Khmer had already been running a programme that employed villagers to repair the lake’s drainage and water level and to improve it as a fish spawning ground.

Before January this year, the lake had been part of a fish-farming enterprise run by the family of a local entrepreneur, Bin Nhep, who was given permission by a village chief in 1998 to use the area for private business.

Villagers accused Mr. Nhep of blocking public access to Choam Prei, an important local source of food. They collected 86 thumbprints to file a petition through their local government office.

The office chief for Romney commune, Seng Chheang, took up the case in 2008 and raised its profile through a nationwide local government-association. The association, the National League of Commune/Sangkat, receives technical and financial support from UNDP as part of a project for democratic reforms at the local level.

It took two years for the Choam Prei dispute to get support through the association and for the case to be taken up by the Ministry of Environment in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. The lake was returned to Romchek village as a communal asset earlier this year.

“The National League gave me a lot of encouragement to fight for this lake," said Mr. Chheang. "It is a public asset which cannot be simply owned by a family. It belongs to local villagers, and I kept my word and assured them that we will fight to take the lake back for our community.”

The Romchek case is one of an increasing number received by local and provincial governments in recent years as private business and investment, both domestic and foreign, become more widespread across the country.

Cambodia was one of the first among the world’s 49 Least Developed Countries to be admitted, in 2004, to the World Trade Organization (WTO) whose rules require members to open their domestic markets and offer stronger trade relations with other nations.

Following the effects of a regional economic crisis in the latter half of the 1990s, Cambodia’s economic growth has risen dramatically during the last decade, reaching levels of 10 percent between 2004-2007.

Alongside agriculture, textiles and construction, tourism has been one of Cambodia's strongest growth sectors.