The Royal Academy of Cambodia’s (RAC) Techo Sen Russey Treb Park supports tourism and provides jobs, and seeks to put end an end to illegal timber clearing and the hunting of wildlife.

The RAC’s park spans an area of over 11,435sq km. Unfortunately, since its establishment in 2014, numerous luxury timber tress have been felled by illegal loggers. In 2017, when Sok Touch took office as RAC president, he personally visited the site and implemented measures to conserve and develop the area, with the aim of preserving nature and promoting environmental tourism, and research benefits, creating employment opportunities for the locals, thereby reducing poverty in the region.

Despite his efforts, the park still faces challenges, including deforestation, the illegal transportation of luxury timber out of the park, and the hunting of rare and endangered species.

The Post conducted an interview with Sok Touch to discuss past conservation and development results, as well as strategies to prevent further damage and protect the park.

What are the most significant accomplishments that have been made following your implementation of conservation and development activities in the park?

Previously, it was a place for visiting and learning about Khmer culture, the Kuy ethnic minority group and an iron-smelting furnace, but was not registered with the RAC. When I became RAC president in 2017, I personally visited the park and discovered that most of the valuable trees, particularly the luxury trees, had been cut down, leaving only first and second-grade wood behind. We also observed a significant amount of encroachment.

We started educating the local population, as people were actively engaged in three main occupations – first, cutting down trees, second, hunting wildlife, and third, collecting non-timber products. We provided education to them for three years, from 2017 to 2020. To discourage these activities, we needed to create alternative job opportunities for them, so I established a dairy farm with a barn and grass-growing area, as well as purchased machinery for milk processing. This provided employment and livelihoods for the community, so they no longer need to cut down trees or hunt wildlife. In addition, I also established sheep and goat farms, followed by cattle farms, where people can work as herdsmen for a daily or monthly income.

I want to make the area a popular tourist destination. When tourists visit the area, the generated income will remain within the region, where we have access to meat, vegetables, beautiful forests, a pristine natural environment, and all kinds of wildlife. Over the past 4-5 years, we have made significant progress towards achieving this goal, but we lack the budget to build guesthouses for tourists to stay.

To further conserve and develop this area, what new projects do you have planned?

Once we achieve success, I will encourage the community to learn more advanced agricultural and animal husbandry techniques. Additionally, I aim to establish a cattle bank to provide locals with access to cattle. This would involve teaching the people who are interested and providing them with cattle to raise. The bank will operate in such a way that for every calf that is given to them, one will be given to us. This may not be applicable to dairy cows, however.

We also intend to research and publish a guide to raising buffaloes. For example, we need to know how many offspring a female buffalo can produce over her lifetime. What is the cost of feeding? We will write guides to three methods of raising cattle. First, the natural way, where cattle are allowed to graze freely; next, a semi-natural method; and finally, intensive farming, where feed is used.

On top of this, we are about to begin developing our irrigation system. The stream runs dry during the dry months, and we are seeking a partner to build a spillway or sluice to retain water. At this point, we would like to express our gratitude to Prime Minister Hun Sen, for providing us with five ponds through Lim Kean Hor. We need these ponds, as during the dry season, the wildlife in the area, such as elephants, wild boars, deer, and banteng are at risk due to a lack of access to a source of drinking water.

How many partitions does the park have, and what are they?

We have not partitioned the park, as it is not feasible in a forest. The area boasts large trees. In the Angkorian era, there was an iron-smelting furnace there, so we want to conserve all of our trees. We do not divide the area, but we manage everything. In areas where deforestation has taken place, we replant. There are also three mountains in the park. In the future, if anyone expresses interest in investing in a resort, they may do so, but only under the condition that no trees will be felled.

What methods and strategies do you employ to prevent logging and hunting in the conservation area?

As previously mentioned, we have offered the local people jobs, including herding cattle, cutting grass, planting trees, and working on dairy farms. Before employing them, we conducted research to determine how much money they were earning from logging, and found that they were making around 8,000 riel ($2) per day. In contrast, we can offer them 25,000 riel ($6.25) per day. Despite this, some people still engage in illegal logging activities.

We have also explained to them that we will soon be bringing tourists, and that we will encourage them to use their transportation to provide services to tourists. They currently earn 25,000 riel per day, but with the arrival of tourists, they may also open guesthouses. If they do not have the capital to open a guesthouse, they may opt to grow vegetables to sell. We also want to showcase activities that demonstrate the unique Kuy ethnic culture and way of life, including how to collect resin and where to find water. They will keep the earnings for themselves and will refrain from cutting down trees.

What are some of the major challenges to your conservation work, and how do you address them?

The largest challenge is that we must find alternative sources of income for people if we want to alter their behaviour. Without employment options, no matter how many laws we enact, illegal activities will take place. If they have no income, we cannot stop them.

Therefore, we offer jobs, accommodation, and pay for their electricity bills. However, changing an adult’s behaviour takes time, as fostering a love for nature should ideally start at a young age.For instance, we once mobilised the local population to plant trees, and they planted them. Later, while I was away receiving medical treatment, around 30ha of the same area were cut down due.

A lack of money was cited as the reason, but they were able to use tractors to pull the trees down. Even though I had specifically prohibited them from cutting down trees in that area and warned that anyone caught doing so would be arrested, it was difficult to carry out the arrest without my presence.

We are aware of who the loggers and hunters are, and have even gone to their homes to make arrests. We have filed complaints with the district chief and provincial governor, but they seem to be unaware of the problem. We have now established a village nearby with better amenities, including a water supply, a pagoda, and a market, yet some of them have opted not to move there, and have remained in the encroachment area, where there are no schools or pagodas. Not only have they refused to relocate – they have also been cutting down a significant number of trees and hunting wild boars, which we have observed on two or three occasions.

My team is concerned about their safety when cracking down on the criminals in the area, and I share their concerns. However, I am determined to preserve the 10,000 hectares. The locals can do whatever they like, with no interference from us, with just two exceptions – cutting down trees and hunting wildlife. Unfortunately, illegal hunting still occurs, and the hunters are even using homemade guns which pose a significant threat to our safety.

In addition, some of them have deployed electrocution traps. To address this issue, we have implemented strict measures. We will arrest anyone we catch, as we have been granted an exemption for the past three years.

How many hectares of saplings have you planted from the beginning until now and how many trees does this represent?”

We have continuously planted trees up until the past two years, when our budget ran out. In total, we have planted one million trees on approximately 80ha of land, although unfortunately, the locals have cut down many of the trees and replaced them with cassava crops. This was successful in some places, but in times of drought, others were destroyed. However, the area that was planted by the prime minister was preserved, as that area is only about one kilometre from our headquarters, so we become aware of any illegal activities there very quickly.