Why money is killing Cambodia's ecotourism industry
09.02.2011 - 15.02.2011
Perhaps it was the schizophrenic nature of the city that meant we decided to head for the less complex charms of the east of the country. Whereas travelling and tourism in Phnom Penh is chaotic and frenzied and takes place in an area densely populated with travellers; to the east lies a vast area that is ying to the capitals yang.
'Tourism with a conscience' is a concept that has hit many countries as much for its economic advantages as for its ethics. Travellers are usually well versed in coffee shop politics and many jump at an opportunity to indulge their conscience to support such ventures. The dichotomy at the heart of ecotourism, conscience and economy, is often hard to resolve and this was uncomfortably evident in Cambodia’s so called ‘green heart’.
Travel 150 miles to the east of Phnom Penh and you will reach a small town called Kratie, perched with a stunning vantage point over the Mekong River and home to one of the jewels in Cambodia’s eco-crown, the Irrawaddy River Dolphins. Once intended to be the lynch pin in the ‘Mekong Discovery Trail’ project, it has been left to survive on its own. The trail project had raised and set aside $4million for a 100km footpath and trail along the Mekong River, before realising that the annual wet season would flood much of the trail for 6 months of the year.
Despite being an example of poorly planned aid distribution the Kratie section of the plan went ahead. In the river close to the town there is a natural deep pool at the widest point of the vast river which is large enough to be home to one of the last remaining populations of river dolphins. Hunted, over fished and with increasing ecological demands further upstream the virbrant dolphin populations of yester year have largely been confined to this and a couple of other locations on the lower Mekong.
However, kratie is pushing for their survival under the banner of Econ-tourism. Former fisherman have been re-trained in conservation and tourism and now use their boats to ferry visitors out to the centre of the pool where they expertly manoeuvre their boats to give tourists the best possible sight of these beautiful yet all too rare animals. It is a refreshingly simple act of conservation education and has the support of much of the community. However, the real test will come when tourists fully discover this place just 3 hours from the capital. Will the allure of increased money in such a poor area compromise the conservation? The signs here are good as the boatmen at least are fiercely protective of the dolphins and realize that their futures are intrinsically linked to those of the dolphins. However, more tourism means more money, means more disruption to dolphin breeding and habitat. Only time will tell is the success of this scheme is to be its undoing.
After 2 days and a bout of the inevitable food poisoning (great time to be stuck with no air con in 35 degree heat) we arranged to go 6 hours further east to the tourism frontier town of Sen Monorom. Having arranged our transport through the hostel things looked good when a minibus arrived and 7 of us jumped on. An hour later with 28 people in a 15 seater minibus along with all of our luggage things were less good; in fact I would say things were decidedly awful for the ensuing 6 hours. After an hour or so a certain sanguine set in, and by the end the hilarity of the drivers trying to squeeze yet another body into the heat and chaos inside (and out) of the bus left us with an unmistakable joy in our heart. This after was Cambodia as the locals knew it not the tourists. Ironically the epic car share obviously qualified this journey for eco-friendly.
There is one thing tourists go to Sen Monorom for…elephants. Sadly the allure of making money from these animals through ever-increasing exposure to tourism highlights the dichotomy at the heart of eco-tourism.
Touting itself as the home of responsible tourism in Cambodia; Sen Monorom is awash with various forest and elephant trips all eager to promote the benefit to local minority tribes, the wellbeing of the animals involved, and the protection of the natural environment.
As you arrive into the hillside town, everyone you meet is pushing their own guide/elephant service, and all are as you expect nice to their elephants. Originally not that interested, our curiosity grew, and on the advice of some friends in the hostel bar we booked for a trip the next day.
What no one tells you is that that day will rank among the least comfortable and least satisfying of your life. With massive bones and rough skin anytime spent on top of an elephant is uncomfortable and on top of that you see very little of the very thing you wanted to spend time with. The rainforest is captivating, the elephant enchanting yet strictly controleld by its mahout (guy that ensures you come back alive) and yetas the day went on there was an increasing feeling that something was not quite right, it all felt a bit wrong…
Cheated not really, misled maybe, naive certainly. Let me explain...
The next day we headed 25 minutes outside of the town into the countryside to a place which had been recommended to us. The Elephant Valley project runs as a three pronged project all of which contribute heavily to the local populations and environment. Run by a young English guy, Jack, the project aims to...
1) Purchase and rehabilitate mal-treated elephants from the local tourism industry that are no longer able to make the treks into the forest due to extended abuse and overwork (guilt just increases for yesterdays trek from here on in)
2) Train the local mahouts (elephant handlers and owners) in the local tourism industry on how to care for their elephants and work them responsibly.
3) Secure as much land as possible to prevent further deforestation and provide an environment for the elephants to live a normal life in. (Logging is such an extensive problem in this area that the government now banns flights to the town’s small airport for fear that foreigners might see the true extent of the destruction.)
The nature of Jack’s initiative is draws you in completely; visitors spend a day with the elephants in their natural environment, observing at a short distance the true beauty and intelligence of these creatures. What shone through in the day we spent there was the complete and unquestioned passion the whole team (100% local) had for the project and the local environment.
The EVP was such a clear contrast to the day before that night and day cliches don't do it justice. Jack's project shows how tourism can be run sustainably both economically and ecologically. The local mahouts are educated in the well being of their elephant and thus its use in the tourism industry is extended as is their income with it. The beauty of the area is preserved, and above all the animals that people flock to see are viewed in their natural habitat rather than being cajoulled up and down the side of a mountain with a sharp stick with two fat westerners up top.
Sadly the jack is the needle in the haystack. While a small proportion of tourists find out about the work of the EVP many more never find a way past the incessant propaganda of the hostels (happily taking a percentage of the booking) and are drawn to the unsustainable and unethical elephant treks.
Worst still the area seems hell bent of destrying its greatest asset, its beauty. Whilst moving through the area the levels of deforestation were biblical. Mile upon mile of land stood with its trees uprooted and all that is left in its place was the dry straw coloured soil. Deforestation of the area runs right up to the government level, where corruption means that over 200 licences for hydro-electric dam projects have been issued, yet still no projects have been completed or indeed will be completed as it remains an elaborate rues for deforestation which reaps quicker rewards. In a few years the beauty that is Sen Monoroms ace card will be gone unless something is donw very soon.
The competition between money and environment is continuing unabated, and as more tourism comes flooding to Cambodia this will only intensify. While the Kratie project and the Elephant Valley projects are both shining examples of responsible and sustainable tourism and will continue to attract large support from the tourism sector, the sad truth remains that much of Cambodia’s ecology is being irreparably damaged; much of it ruining the chances of many to draw a life from what should be the country's greatest asset.
Money will always hold power in a country as impoverished as Cambodia yet the tragedy is that with the right investment the country has every competitive advantage to be a world leader in ecotourism which long term is much more sustainable.
Happily though none of this dampens the beauty of what is to be found in Cambodia, which is only enhanced by some of the friendliest people on earth. Eco-tourism or no eco-tourism that is one thing that money will struggle to dilute!