CAMBODIANS SEEK A BALANCE BETWEEN AGRICULTURE AND WILDLIFE        
by Zoltan Istvan
National Geographic Channel
c.2004 National Geographic Channel
(Distributed by the New York Times Syndicate)

In the Cardamom Mountains of southwest Cambodia, many farmers can
cite
the exact amount of time they spent in labor camps under the Khmer
Rouge.
"Three years, eight months and 20 days," says Kley Phim. She and
her
husband live in the Thmar Bang district in the Koh Kong province _ 40
years
ago, a major rice-producing region for Cambodia.
The couple is trying to rebuild a farming life destroyed by Pol
Pot's
regime. "My husband's mother was killed by the Khmer Rouge in the
village
of Arrang," says Phim.
Land mines and unexploded ordnance still worry farmers in the
neighboring fields. But another challenge is how to balance the demands
of
development and the environment.
The region's agriculture is flourishing _ and threatening some of
the
most pristine forests in Asia, the habitat for 14 endangered species,
including the Asian elephant, Indochinese tiger and the Siamese
crocodile
(once presumed extinct).
The 17,000-square-mile Cardamom region, with peaks up to 5,000
feet, is
home to 30 percent of Cambodia's tigers. One of the last elephant
migration
routes in Asia passes through. Increasingly, farmers cross paths with
families of elephants.
Sometimes the elephants are shot if they destroy crops. Poachers
prey
on the elephants _ as food and for the illegal wildlife trade.
When the Khmer Rouge took over, many villagers were forcibly
relocated
to labor camps. Fields lay fallow. Now the Chai Phat region is striving
to
regain its stature as one of Cambodia's major rice production centers.
During wartime, few companies, national or international, received
commissions to log the forest.
Traditionally, Chi Phat farming succeeded because of what
environmentalists call "shifting agriculture": New forest plots are cut
down every year to open up the most nutrient-rich soil, then not
reused.
Two decades ago, when Chi Phat residents began returning, they
followed
that pattern.
"Every time trees are cut down to make a new rice field, animals
lose
their homes and the forest is compromised," says Ty Sokhun, director of
Cambodia's forestry and wildlife department, which supports programs in
the
Cardamoms that teach farmers about sustainable agriculture.
More than 700 families live in the Chi Phat community, which
consists
of the villages of Chi Phat, Kamlot, Chom Sla, and Tenk Laak.
"Few of the farmers have land titles to the forests they are
cutting
down," says Ai Ouy, Chi Phat commune chief and farmer. "No one really
knows
who the land belongs to so people just cut it down for themselves and
use
it for that year."
The government wants to preserve the mountains and the animals
there.
Surveyors have been trained to help farmers determine land boundaries,
a
way to manage "shifting agriculture." Conservation International, with
an
office in Phnom Penh, and other groups are providing support.
But in Chi Phat community meetings, farmers are passionately
debating
the land-reform program. Many farmers fear that the government may
restrict
access to their fields _ and to the forests they plan to cut down in
the
future, which they've long considered their own.
"I would like to have a title to the land my family and I live and
work
on," says Phim. "But what if they cut the size of our farm lands in
half?
Or what if they say we have to move since the land isn't really ours?"
Ouy understands the forests and wildlife around his community are
disappearing. He tries to talk with villagers about the problem in
community meetings.
"Villagers are poor," Ouy says. "Many are struggling just to get
by.
Shifting agriculture is something the people have practiced for a
hundred
years. It's going to be difficult to stop them from doing it."
Yuth Phouthang, the district governor of Koh Kong province, who
issues
land titles in Chi Phat, is hoping that if the villagers learn
sustainable
agriculture techniques, farmers will prosper _ but not at the expense
of
the forest.
"Right now it's difficult to teach so many farmers to break their
old
habits," says Phouthang. "Many of the people just want to be left alone
to
farm in peace. But we're hopeful in time they'll change and stop
cutting
down the forests."