Banlung, Cambodia – When his two teenage daughters started going to high school three years ago, Thong Samai started selling traditional wine made with herbs collected from the forest to sell alongside Coca-Cola and Red Bull at the entrance of Yeak Laom, a sacred lake that has become a popular ecotourism destination in eastern Cambodia.
It is early March and the biggest wave of COVID-19 that hit the country is just beginning, although yet no one knows to what extent he will – and Samai watches as a group of national tourists get out of a bright white van and pass their stop in the direction of the lake shore.
“They [tourists] I am afraid to approach and I am also afraid that they could give me COVID, but I still have the risk of running the business, ”he told Al Jazeera.
Samai, 40, who is part of the Tompoun Indigenous community that runs the lake, makes between 70,000 and 100,000 rails ($ 17.5-25) on a good day, says the income from his stop helped to ensure that their daughters could continue in school.
But the profits have dried up since the start of the pandemic and during this month’s Khmer New Year, Cambodia’s biggest holiday, the lake closed completely.
The pandemic, which is rising again in Cambodia and forcing closures in Phnom Penh and other hotspots, has been a continuing strain on indigenous communities in the country’s Ratanakiri province, for which additional income from its Natural and spiritual references are critical to your financial survival and the health of your forest home.
Cambodian indigenous groups make up less than two percent of the population and live mainly in the mountainous and forested provinces of the northeast such as Ratanakiri.
But they often face agro-industrial companies with long-term leases that want to clear forests and plant basic crops like rubber, invading the land the natives have tended for generations.
In the past, indigenous communities used rotating agriculture and lived isolated from lowland Cambodians. But when outsiders began moving to Ratanakiri more than 20 years ago for job and free land opportunities, indigenous communities also began planting in the planting style and trying to earn income in other ways.
Ratanakiri province has lost almost 30% of its tree area (approximately 240,000 hectares) since 2000, and 43% of the loss was from primary forest, according to Global Forest Watch.
Many communities have lamented the loss of the forests that mark their land.
They hoped that ecotourism would provide them with a way not only to generate some money, but also to protect some of the remaining forest.
Near Cambodia’s border with Vietnam, three villages in the Jarai indigenous community have been agitated by hydroelectric dams along the Sesan River for more than a decade, but their biggest fear now is deforestation, which they hope will tourism can stop.
Eang Vuth, 49, is not Jarai, but has become part of the Pa Dal indigenous people after coming in 2009 to study and protest against the effect of hydroelectric dams in Sesan. In the last two years, he has noticed that a company was clearing part of the thick forest that remained between Pa Dal and the neighboring village of Pa Tang.
Vuth is now working with village volunteers to transform two wooded islands in the Sesan River into ecotourism sites where visitors can relax, swim and fish, in the hope that the project will leave companies to cut down trees for timber.
“We can get some benefits from these sites … We can use this as a result to show the government that the community here can get some revenue from the site, so if there is any company that wants to come here and do something , we will report this, ”he said, although in March he wondered if the pandemic would curb its potential to attract tourists.
A fisherman from the village of Pa Dal and a friend from Vuth, Galan Lveng, 55, sees ecotourism as one of the few ways to stop cutting down his village and save part of the forest for the village’s youth.
“I’m afraid of losing the forest because there are always bad people watching over it,” he said. “If these [ecotourism] plans are produced, I am sure we will participate in the community. If we can save the trees, I will be so relieved. ”
Ecotourism has already made a difference in protecting the forest surrounding Lake Yeak Laom, where Samai has its stop.
Community ecotourism leader Nham Nea says his 2000 Tompoun indigenous community began hosting tourists and running businesses around the lake.
At the same time, Cambodians from other provinces began to take an interest in the land of the peoples, buying it or forcing indigenous families to obtain “soft titles” (unofficial facts given by local authorities) and to sell the land. community land.
Because parts of the villages were sold privately, Teak’s residents of Yeak Laom were never able to obtain a communal land title, but after years of asking, in 2018 225 acres of forest and lake were granted the protected area status in 2018, and Nea says the community has seen very few stumps (or loggers) on its patrols since.
A few times a month, members of the Yeak Laom ecotourism committee walk a circular path through the protected forest of the area, looking for signs of felling. On one of the February patrols, Tompoun patrols pointed out that a rat trap worked on a small fence and confiscated a tangle of reed wires used to capture wild hens, but found no new souks. nor clear.
For Nea, the threat of logging has been part of the community’s decision to keep Yeak Laom open to visitors during the pandemic. The site was open for most of last year, except for the Khmer New Year, when a travel ban was imposed and all tourist sites were ordered to close.
“We have a lot of big trees, so if we take a break there will be people who will take the opportunity to come and cut down the trees, so we are also concerned about that,” he said. “But if the government orders us to close, we will do what they say.”
About 60 kilometers (37 miles) away, Buli Mi tries to turn Lumkud, another lake and protected area run by three villages in Tompoun, into an attraction like Yeak Laom. For Mi, 39, keeping the Lumkud ecotourism site open through the pandemic is stopping illegal logging and earning income to support neighboring villages.
Costs go up, revenue goes down
Between orders for papaya salad and strawberry-flavored energy drinks, Ly Kimky explains that she has had to cut back on her outdoor bank stock during the pandemic to save money. He, his wife and young child live between their in-laws ’house and Lumkud, sometimes sleeping in a tent near the lake so they can prepare for the food stop early.
But the 29-year-old says it is better than working as a farmer, echoing complaints about bad weather conditions for agriculture and falling cashew and cassava prices that are falling. feel at the sights of Ratanakiri.
“If I work in agriculture, that’s going to be hard for me, maybe I don’t have enough food,” he said. “Here, I can eat the leftovers.”
Sufficient budget to keep the lake running is a challenge every month during COVID-19, Mi said.
It has had to hire more people to check the temperature of visitors at the entrance and disinfect the sprays as required by the Ministry of Health, although the number of visitors has decreased.
Monthly profits have fallen from 2 million Cambodian riels to about 1.5 million (from $ 500 to $ 375) and by March the park had been at a loss for nearly 12 months, he said.
“We have not yet reached a point where we need to close it, but we are facing financial problems and we need to find a solution,” he said in early March.
The Lumkud and Yeak Laom sites closed a couple of weeks later.
Nea says her people had already closed their doors to outsiders at the start of the pandemic, adding that her community and other indigenous communities had been more cautious about infectious diseases after losing many members to an outbreak of cholera 20 years ago. years.
“Because we’ve faced this kind of event before, we’re not like the people in town, so if we see something weird going on [like an illness], we will do a ceremony to close the villages “, he said.
Yet, despite preserving their own culture and spiritual practices, they hope to reopen once the pandemic has subsided.
The success of ecotourism sites – in addition to agriculture – has made life easier for the villagers, as the increase in income allows them to buy motorbikes and telephones.
“Time changes people and when they see how Khmers live, they like it more and it’s more fun, easy and clean to live in,” Nea said. “Updating [ourselves] living like the Khmers does not mean abandoning our religion. “