Villagers Reluctant to Give Up Land for Sake of Birds

phnom srok district, Banteay Meanchey province – Their story is as old as the environmental movement. The people of Pongro village, who live next to the Trapaing Thmar Crane Reservoir, are facing the loss of their land and livelihood because they happen to live near an endangered species. And they aren’t happy about it.

The reservoir, a massive irrigation project built by slave labor during the Khmer Rouge regime, is considered a core area for conservation. There is to be no bird hunting within that area. There are to be no beasts of burden. There is to be no farming.

So far, it would seem, the people of Pongro haven’t exactly signed on to the whole idea. The village sits on the eastern side of a dike road cobbled with the hoof prints of water buffalo. On the other side of the dike—the protected side—those buffalo tromp freely through fresh stalks of this season’s rice crop poking up through the mud. The rice spreads as far as the eye can see.

Dith Yoeun, a 47-year-old farmer, says he owns about 4 hectares of farmland in the area. And he’s not about to give it up just for the sake of a bunch of birds.

“I was born here. I have seen the cranes since I was very young. The cranes usually find their fodder around here,” Dith Yoeun says, crouching in the shade and scribbling a map of the area with a small stick in the dirt. “I feel very upset when cattle were not allowed to get into this field to graze.”

Upset is right.

In May, a mob of Pongro villagers stormed the house of wildlife officials and conservationists, roughed up at least one government official, and yanked out all the posts delineating the border of the crane conservation area.

Since then, they have let their buffalo back out onto the reservoir’s paddies.

“If we are not allowed to get in the fields to farm, where could we farm to eke out a living?” asks Kao Nuoth, 30, wearing a tattered shirt over underwear and carrying a fish trap. “We are afraid that our farms will be seized because we have no other place to do farming. We have had our farms here, and we are asked to sign agreements to borrow farms that we [already] have.”

Villagers around the reservoir are asked by government officials to sign agreements where they promise not to hunt, fish or farm on the protected area.

“The farms belong to us,” Kao Nuoth says. “Why did they ask us to borrow the farms?”

The nemesis of Dith Yoeun, Kao Nuoth and farmers like them is the Eastern Sarus Crane. Called the dancing crane, the bird stands as high as an M-16 rifle is long, sleeps on the ground, is easy to catch and provides plenty of meat for eating.

“We take part in conserving the cranes, and we do not catch them for food.” Dith Yoeun says. “But we have farmed here for generations.”

That may be the case, says Guy Marris, Cambodia project coordinator for the International Crane Conservation Fund, but the situation is complex on the reservoir, and there are vested interests other than those of the simple farmers.

The land surrounding the reservoir has been developed by land speculators, eroding the natural habitat of the Sarus Cranes and other wildlife supported by the wetlands.

And while the simple farmers have “legitimate concerns and legitimate grievances that need to be addressed,” at the current pace, the habitat for those animals will be destroyed in five years, Marris says.

Marris was there when the angry villagers stormed the conservation offices, and since then, he says, they have agreed to let the villagers farm and herd inside the “core” protected area. His conservation organization works closely with the Ministry of Agriculture’s Department of Wildlife, and the next step will be to set up an intensive liaison team that will go village to village to sort out specific problems. Land must also be properly divvied up to small farmers and wrested from speculators.

“The cranes are a flagship species, a symbol for disappearing wetlands across the world,” Marris says. Crane conservation means habitat conservation, he says, “which will preserve the people as well.”


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