Banlung from Cambodia – When her two teenage daughters started going to high school three years ago, Thong Samai started selling traditional wine that she makes with herbs picked from the forest to sell alongside Coca-Cola and Red Bull in the entrance to Yeak Laom, a sacred lake that has become a popular ecotourism destination in eastern Cambodia.
It’s early March and the biggest COVID-19 wave to hit the country is just beginning – although No one knows how bad it will become yet – and Samai watches a group of domestic tourists exit a crisp white van and walk past his stall to the lakeside.
“They [tourists] are scared to approach me, and I’m also scared that they might give me COVID, but I always take the risk of running the business, ”she told Al Jazeera.
Earning between 70,000 and 100,000 riel ($ 17.5- $ 25) on a good day, Samai, 40, who is part of the indigenous Tompoun community that manages the lake, says the income from his stall has helped his daughters to continue to go to school.
But revenues have dried up since the start of the pandemic and during this month’s Khmer New Year, Cambodia’s biggest holiday, the lake was completely closed.
The pandemic – which is escalating again in Cambodia and forcing doors to close in Phnom Penh and other hot spots – has been a continued pressure on indigenous communities in Ratanakiri province, for whom the additional income from their natural and spiritual landmarks is essential to the health of their forest home.
Indigenous groups in Cambodia make up less than 2% of the population and live mainly in the hilly and forested northeastern provinces such as Ratanakiri.
But they are often opposed to agribusiness companies with long-term leases that want to clear forests and plant staple crops like rubber, encroaching on land that indigenous peoples have tended for generations.
In the past, indigenous communities used rotational agriculture and lived isolated from Cambodians on the “plains”. But when foreigners began to move to Ratanakiri over 20 years ago for free land and employment opportunities, indigenous communities also began to cultivate plantation-type crops and try to earn income from others. means.
Ratanakiri province has lost nearly 30 percent of its tree cover – about 240,000 hectares (593,000 acres) – since 2000, and 43 percent of the loss was from primary forest, according to Global forest watch.
Many communities have come to regret the loss of the forests that mark their land.
They hoped that ecotourism would provide them with a way not only to generate some cash, but also to protect part of their remaining forest.
Near the Cambodia-Vietnam border, three villages in the indigenous Jarai community have been agitated by hydroelectric dams along the Sesan River for more than 10 years, but their greatest fear now is deforestation, which they hope that tourism can stop.
Eang Vuth, 49, is not Jarai, but became part of the indigenous village of Pa Dal after arriving in 2009 to study and protest the effect of hydroelectric dams on the Sesan. In the past two years, he noticed that a company was clearing part of the thick forest remaining between Pa Dal and the nearby village of Pa Tang.
Vuth is now working with village volunteers to transform two forested islands in the Sesan River into ecotourism sites where visitors can relax, swim and fish, hoping the project will prevent companies from cutting down trees for timber.
“We can make some profit from these places… We can use that accordingly to show the government that the community here can earn income from the place, so if there is a business that wants to come here and do something, we’ll report that, ”he said, though he wondered in March whether the pandemic would reduce its potential to attract tourists.
A fisherman from Pa Dal village and a friend of Vuth’s, Galan Lveng, 55, sees ecotourism as one of the few ways to stop clear-cutting in their village and save part of the forest for them. young people from the village.
“I’m afraid of losing the forest because the bad guys are still there, keeping an eye on them,” he said. “If these [ecotourism] plans are coming to fruition, I’m sure we in the community will get involved. If we can save the trees, I will be so relieved.
Ecotourism has already made a difference in protecting the forest surrounding Yeak Laom Lake where Samai has his stall.
Community ecotourism leader Nham Nea said his indigenous Tompoun community started welcoming tourists and running businesses around the lake in 2000.
At the same time, Cambodians from other provinces began to take an interest in village lands, buying them or forcing indigenous families to obtain “indirect titles” – unofficial deeds issued by local authorities – and to sell community lands.
Because pieces of the villages were sold privately, the residents of Tompoun de Yeak Laom were never able to secure communal land titles, but after years of demand, 225 hectares (556 acres) of forest and lake were lost. achieved protected area status in 2018, and Nea says the community has seen very few stumps – or loggers – during their patrols since then.
A few times a month, members of the Yeak Laom ecotourism committee hike a circular trail through the area’s protected forest, looking for signs of logging. During one of the patrols in February, patrollers from Tompoun reported that a rat trap entered a small fence and confiscated a tangle of rattan threads used to catch wild chickens, but found no news. stump or clearing.
For Nea, the threat of logging was part of the community’s decision to keep Yeak Laom open to visitors during the pandemic. The site has been open most of the last year, with the exception of 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 stop there will be people who will take the opportunity to come and cut the trees, so we are worried about that as well,” he said. “But if the government orders us to shut down, we’ll do what it says.”
About 60 kilometers away, Buli Mi is trying to develop Lumkud, another lake and protected area run by three Tompoun villages, into an attraction like Yeak Laom. For Mi, 39, keeping the Lumkud ecotourism site open during the pandemic means both stopping illegal logging and earning income to support neighboring villages.
Costs go up, revenues go down
Between orders for papaya salad and strawberry energy drinks, Ly Kimky says he had to cut back on stock at his outdoor stand during the pandemic to save money. He, his wife, and their child live between his in-laws’ house and Lumkud, sometimes sleeping in a tent by the lake so they can prepare the food stand early.
But the 29-year-old says it’s better than working as a farmer, echoing complaints about poor weather conditions for farming and falling cashew and cassava prices heard at tourist spots of Ratanakiri.
“If I work in agriculture it will be difficult for me, maybe I will not 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.
He had to hire more people to check the temperature of visitors at the entrance and spray disinfectant as required by the Department of Health, even as the number of visitors declined.
Monthly profits fell from 2 million Cambodian riel to around 1.5 million ($ 500 to $ 375) and by March the park had been operating at a loss for almost 12 months, he said.
“We have not yet reached the point where we have to shut it down, but we are facing financial problems and we have to find a solution,” he said in early March.
The Lumkud and Yeak Laom sites closed a few weeks later.
Nea says his village had previously closed its doors to outsiders at the start of the pandemic, adding that his indigenous community and others had become more cautious of infectious disease after losing many members to a cholera outbreak he 20 years ago.
“Because we’ve been through this kind of event before, we’re not like the people of the city, so if we see something weird happen [like an illness], we will organize a ceremony to close the villages, ”he said.
Yet even as they preserve their own culture and spiritual practices, they are eager to reopen once the pandemic has abated.
The success of ecotourism sites – in addition to agriculture – has made the life of the villagers much easier, with increased incomes enabling them to purchase motorcycles and phones.
“The weather changes people, and when they see the way Khmers live, they love it more and it’s more fun, easier and cleaner to live with,” Nea said. “Update [ourselves] living like the Khmers does not mean that we give up our religion.