samlot district, Battambang province – It has been more than a year since the big red helicopter carrying the film star circled three times, hovered and landed here. But amused villagers in Kantuot village are thinking more about protecting their land and their livelihood than about when Angelina Jolie will return for another visit.
Villagers breathed a sigh of relief last year when Prime Minister Hun Sen halted a nearby hydropower dam project. The dam, which would have been constructed along the Samlot river by a consortium of South Korean companies, would have flooded Kantuot village.
Jolie asked Hun Sen in July 2004 to stop the project, and the prime minister complied after meeting with the Hollywood actress and officials from environmental NGO WildAid.
The decision means that villagers like Heng Kim, 50, can continue farming the normally lush land, which has lately suffered from a drought.
Heng Kim’s family moved to Kantuot village from Kompong Cham province’s Chamkar Leu district because of the availability of large tracts of land.
“Here we have a lot of land,” she said Friday, as she washed clothes during a brief respite of rain. “Some of the villagers were afraid the dam would flood the land, so we thumbprinted [a document asking authorities to stop the project].
“Our farm is here. We could not allow this,” she said.
While the dam is no longer a threat, illegal loggers, gem miners, land encroachers and animal traffickers remain a constant presence in the 60,000 hectares of forested land that Jolie and WildAid are working to preserve, according to Auv Sophiak, the project coordinator of the Maddox Jolie Project.
One entrance to the site of the forest project, which is named for Jolie’s adopted Cambodian-born son, lies next to Kantuot village.
And villagers like Chhay Lai must stop at a checkpoint to ask for permission before they are allowed to enter the forest.
“I don’t know what it is now, but they are very strict. We are just the poor people,” Chhay Lai said.
The checkpoint, where WildAid officials work along with military police and forest rangers to monitor the forest preserve, sits just a few hundred meters down the road from a wooden vacation home that Jolie built for herself two years ago, when she agreed to fund the $1.5 million forest project.
The two-story home features a balcony and a view of nearby mountains.
Jolie has said she hopes to return to the area often so that her son can continue to experience Cambodia.
But the home has only been put to use on two or three occasions, villagers said.
“We have been traveling along those roads for many years. We never see anyone in those houses,” Chhay Lai said.
“I have only heard her name, but I have never seen her face-to-face or seen any of her movies,” said Prak Sarath, a former Khmer Rouge soldier who settled in the village several years ago.
“But I heard that she wants to conserve the forest and to help the handicapped,” he said.