African-style ecotourism boost for Cambodia

Local people and endangered animals such as elephants, tigers and wild water buffalo will benefit from a unique ecotourism initiative in Southeast Asia led by the London-based IIED and WWF in Cambodia.

News, 04 January 2006

The new project in the dry forests of Northeast Cambodia will conserve species through the involvement of poor rural communities - which know the area best - in all aspects of tourism development and operation.

"Being pro poor, pro wildlife and pro tourism may seem like a tall order, but our experience of similar projects in southern Africa shows that these things can be happy bedfellows,"

"Being pro poor, pro wildlife and pro tourism may seem like a tall order, but our experience of similar projects in southern Africa shows that these things can be happy bedfellows," said IIED's James MacGregor. "This is what sustainable development should be about - managing natural resources to meet the needs of people and protect the ecosystems that underpin our future."

This part of Cambodia has seen a dramatic decline in species populations as a result of habitat loss and unsustainable harvesting. To generate new sources of income and meet obligations under international treaties such as the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the Government of Cambodia has identified the development of ecotourism as a key priority in its national plan. It is now one of the nation's fastest growing industries and is moving into rural areas.

The new project is based in the forested "Srepok Wilderness Area". Working in alliance with grassroots organisations, such as the "Dry Forests Coalition", IIED will provide the necessary start-up research and project-building training to "tool up" local communities to manage the emerging ecotourism infrastructure. This will draw on highly successful model first piloted in Namibia's Caprivi region.

The southern African approach is known locally as the "Event Book", but its technical title is "Management Orientated Monitoring System". It helps local people (whether communities or park rangers) to collect and analyse their own crucial conservation data without having to rely on outside expertise. The Namibian experience has spawned similar devolved systems in Botswana, Mozambique and Zambia, and IIED aims to assist the people of the Srepok Wilderness Area to develop their own unique wildlife monitoring and management.

"You cannot manage what you can't measure, and you cannot measure what you can't describe," said Richard Diggle, one of the pioneers of the Event Book system in Namibia who will be visiting the Cambodian project to share ideas. "This system has worked well in Africa and can work in Cambodia and other parts of the world if it is used as a handbook and not a blueprint."

In Cambodia, IIED will focus on "training the trainers" in order to build local capacity. By the end of the first year of the project, six community members - perhaps former hunters or poachers - will be trained as full-time wildlife rangers. Thirty local people will be trained in wildlife monitoring in the second year. Students from Cambodian universities will also help conduct a tourism feasibility study and a scholarship will be given for one person to study "community-based wildlife management" at a Wildlife College in South Africa, returning to share expertise in the latter part of the course.

Key to the success of the project will be the unique combination of traditional means of survival, such as using elephants to cut through dense forest, and high-tech equipment, such as digi-cams, to monitor wildlife. Learning from the African experience, another innovation will be to help forge lasting partnerships between private sector tourism operators and local communities. Investors will be encouraged to visit the project area in its early stages with the aim of building trust and collaboration.

Ecotourism has often failed to meet its honourable aims in many parts of the world. However, IIED believes that the southern African participatory and "high value, low impact" approach can lead to success in Cambodia and other poor countries.

James MacGregor said: "With the right recipe of local knowledge, international experience and government backing, ecotourism can be truly sustainable and responsible. The key is the involvement of local communities and grassroots organisations in planning and management - we can only play an enabling role by providing some tried and tested tools."

IIED's work in Cambodia is supported by the "Darwin Initiative", a fund of the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

UK biodiversity minister Jim Knight MP said: "Tourism can be a creative and powerful key to achieving sustainable development, which can benefit local people and biodiversity. Finding integrated solutions that both enhance local livelihoods and conserve wildlife for the benefit of all is a challenge we are pleased to support."