The rapid dwindling of Cambodia’s mangroves has had a devastating effect on locals’ livelihoods. However, one community has taken matters into its own hands. Writer Marissa Carruthers and photographer Charles Fox find out how villagers are spearheading a drive to revive the trees.

A

wooden fishing boat slices through the still waters that wind their way from Kampot to the sea. To one side, thick green mangroves line the river, their thin knotted roots protruding sharply from its surface. To the other, a bed of orange clay stretches to the horizon; the freshly ploughed ground showing no sign of life after the land was felled to pave the way for development and salt fields. The contrast is stark.

“This river was once surrounded by mangroves,” says Sera Him, village chief and leader of a conservation group formed to preserve the disappearing mangroves in the fishing village of Tropaing Sangke, in Kampot. “It’s very sad. The majority of people in the community are fishermen and need these natural resources to survive.”

Decades of tearing up the dense forests that traditionally flanked the waterways has taken its toll on the minority Cham Muslim fishing communities that populate the area. The mangroves offered protection in the form of barriers to break coastal waves and prevent flooding and act as a home to a surplus of sea life, such as fish and squid. Now they have been cut down, the fishermen are stripped of their steady form of income and families have plunged into poverty.

Many were forced to leave their homeland for neighbouring countries, such as Malaysia and Thailand, to work often illegally and in appalling conditions for survival. After watching too many lifelong friends leave the village for neighbouring countries, Sera was spurred into action and spearheaded a campaign to reinstate the mangroves.

In 2009, 18 fishermen formed a working group and visited surrounding villages to educate people on the importance of preserving the mangroves. Within one month, they had collected 2,007 fingerprints offering support, and in 2011 an agreement was signed with the government. In it, 56 hectares were assigned solely to mangroves and an additional 337 hectares designated to fishing.

Since then, slowly but surely, the mangroves that were felled to make way for salt plains and private developments, and to build homes for locals or provide fuel for fires to cook and heat homes, are being reinstated. To date, more than 1,200 trees have successfully been replanted, providing communities once again with a sustainable form of income. Fishermen today earn on average $5 a day compared with $0.60 in 2009.

The first batch of trees was bought from Donghou village in west Kampot. Since then, they have been cultivated from seeds in self-made nurseries that skirt the river. To promote growth, saplings are covered with plastic bags to protect them and planted in rich muddy ground. After six to eight months, the young plants are transferred to their permanent home, where they reach maturity within four to five years.

Under the leadership of the group, fishermen and other villagers have also undergone intense training in natural resources management and have formed teams of officers. These officers patrol the waters day and night to stop any illegal fishing and chopping down of the trees.

Group member Vannarith Nob says, “The community has been keen to support us, and we have all come together to make sure we can preserve the resources that we rely on to survive into the future. This is very important work, and it has had a good effect so far.”

Members of the organisation still carry out their education mission to teach communities about the importance of maintaining the mangroves and fish stocks, and they regularly visit schools to talk to students about the area’s ecology. They have even embraced tourism by offering engaging eco-stays in four self-built wooden houses and a basic restaurant serving local food that perch in between the salt plains and mangroves.

Sera adds, “To enable us to continue with this good work, we had to come up with an additional way to finance the project and to give a little extra income to villagers, while educating visitors. This has been a great way to achieve this so far, and we hope to develop it in the future.”

From here, guests can plant their own mangroves, go kayaking, swim in a lake, take trips out with local fishermen or simply watch laid-back, rural Cambodian life lazily pass by. Nob says, “We aim to improve the lives of local communities through conservation. However, we can’t be a success without their help and support and that is why this works so well.”

To book an eco-stay with Tropaing Sangke Fishing Community, phone 069 306 505 (English) or 0977 306 505 (Khmer).