More than 3,800 families will be-come the official stewards for more than 14,300 hectares of forest as the government officially recognizes 32 community forest sites in Kompong Thom province today, officials said Thursday.
The program, only the second of its kind in Cambodia, seeks to help set up forest areas managed by local communities instead of the government.
Responsible for protecting the land, residents also have the right to use the forest and its byproducts to make a living.
Kompong Thom Provincial Gov-ernor Nam Tom said the sites, scattered among all but two districts of the province, would give residents greater control and the government some piece of mind.
“Right now the forest is reduced. So, when the community cooperates with the government, it could protect the forest more effectively because they live there,” he said Thursday by telephone. “They could benefit from the forest by collecting resin, vines and other things.”
Community members have le-gally recognized rights through a signed contract to manage a predetermined forest area for 15 years, said James Bampton, country dir-ector for the RECOFTC, an NGO involved in the project in Kompong Thom.
Bampton said villagers have the opportunity to extend the contract if they wish.
“It strengthens the community’s hand in law enforcement,” he said. “You got a whole village watching instead of one ranger who has a whole area to look after.”
Since November 2007, 18 community forests sites have been established in Siem Reap province on roughly 5,000 hectares.
Bampton said Thursday that there are now around 300 community forest sites in various stages of development countrywide, covering an estimated 300,000 hectares. Serving as the chief technical ad-viser for the project in Kompong Thom, he said many are receptive to the idea since it assures residents that they determine how the forest will be treated.
“It secures their access to the land,” he added.
Seum Sien, a community forest leader in Sandan district, said the transfer of responsibility would help preserve the land, which has been systematically ravaged in recent years by illegal logging operations.
Illegal logging has been a constant problem in his area, he said, adding that residents are completely dependent on what is left of the province’s forests for their livelihood.
“We need resin from the trees to sell to support our families, and especially [we need the] vines,” he said, adding that others hunt local wildlife for food. “Protection of the forest provides much profit for the community. If the forest is damaged it would affect our community and the whole country,” he added.