Protection and Conservation for Coastal Community Livelihood Improvements, Cambodia

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A couple of years ago I monitored Small Grant Projects implemented by the UNDP in Cambodia. One of them was in the Koh Kong province and aimed at protecting, restoring and conserving coastal community livelihoods. The main objective of the project was to increase mangrove forest coverage for biodiversity conservation and the control of illegal fishing, especially to stop pushing boats used by fishers to cause serious damage to sea grass and fishing gears of poor fishermen.  Simultaneously the project aimed to improve the livelihoods of community members, concentrating on the poorest families and women headed households (WHH).

Approximately 970 families were included at the end of the project in June 2007. They considered the area as their common ground and protecting it was their main purpose. When I first met with the village committee they kept on telling me that the area is supposed to be for everyone. It was then that I realised that ‘community’ had a much stronger meaning then the one I was used to. Having grown up in a country where they teach you from childhood that ‘you do this for yourself and no one else’ one can forget, or never learn the real notion of community. For them it was as natural as breathing that their community resources must be protected, managed and conserved for them and future generations. For me this was a real eye opener against the main stream individualism and privatisation of the western countries.

There were many threats to their livelihoods but the biggest one was an international company. The company specialised in pumping sand and selling it all over the world. In this case the company was operating in the area for over a year resulting in massive damage to the environment and the communities. Even though the country is supposed to be a democracy there still is a ‘dictator’ (former Khmer Rouge) which means that local communities have it very difficult to be heard and acknowledged. The committee told me that they had already submitted four complains to the government without success. ‘We can’t compete with a firm that pays a lot of money to a corrupt government’. However a year later with the help and pressure of local media, UNDP and the opposing party, the government agreed to get rid of the sand pumping company. This was a huge success on a national scale.

What most impressed me was that these small communities were able to stand up to a multinational corporation and the local government. They were able to claim the area as a common ground and not something owned it was truly an act of ‘no commons without commoning’ (Peter Linebaugh).

Over 200.000$ have been invested by UNDP GEF SGP and other development partners to sustain the project for 2 years. At this point is where I was thinking that such a community based project would not be possible without outside financing and help. Without pressure from outside the government would not have removed the company. So the question here is how far is it possible for a community to protect and manage their resources in such hostile environments?

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