When forests flourish, communities do too

In northern Cambodia, a reforestation project has given a lifeline to the environment and community

Tun Kean’s local area has been hit hard by deforestation – but now her community is coming together to fight back, restore their environment and boost their livelihoods. ©FAO/Enric Català Conteras


As she does most mornings, 37-year-old Tun Kean has completed a patrol of her local forest in Preah Vihear province, northern Cambodia. She is monitoring the area for signs of illegal activity or forest fires. Looking after the health of the forest is one of Tun’s biggest concerns and for good reason: in recent years, forestland encroachment, over-harvesting, illegal logging and climate change have dramatically altered the once luscious, leafy landscape surrounding her home.

The decreasing forest cover exposed her community to the impacts of climate change, namely more frequent droughts and an increase in temperature, which affects crops and consequently food security.

“In the past three years before 2020, we did not have enough rice to eat year-round. It was because of prolonged drought and too little rain,” says Tun. Since most of the community depends on the forest, it has been increasingly difficult for Tun and other families to sustain their livelihoods and feed themselves.

These days, however, when Tun returns to her husband and their five children after her morning patrol, she notices that their home in Trapeang Tuntoeum is beginning to be surrounded again by the rich green forest that characterised this part of Cambodia. Her income, which comes from rice farming and growing cash crops, is picking up again too. The rice, cashew nuts and vegetables she grows all rely on the natural shade and soil of the forest environment. So, how did things turn around?

Community Forestry members were trained in forest restoration, including growing and tending to new saplings. ©FAO/Enric Català Conteras

Fighting back with an FAO project

Tun was desperate to protect the forest in her community but had no idea how to get started. The local community lacked the resources and technical capacity to take action. Then, in 2019, Tun heard about the Forest Landscape Restoration Mechanism (FLRM) Project, introduced to her community by the Regional Community Forestry Training Centre for Asia and the Pacific (RECOFTC) and FAO. FAO and RECOFTC are equipping forest communities with the technical capacity and funds needed to address forest degradation and promote restoration activities, in conjunction with the Cambodian government’s Community Forestry initiative. The project helps sustainably manage natural resources on five pilot sites, covering more than 52 hectares across Cambodia’s Kampong Thom, Siem Reap and Preah Vihear regions.

Training is one of the most important aspects of the project, giving the community members the necessary skills, tools and resources to successfully manage forests through actions like selecting sites for restoration, replanting trees, choosing appropriate species, taking care of and raising seedlings in nurseries and protecting the forest from the risk of fire.  

Tun joined the FLRM project at its beginning and is now part of the maintenance group. She has been involved in the planting of trees and restoration of ten hectares of degraded forest. She regularly checks the seedlings to ensure their survival, clears weeds or grasses and attends meetings to discuss the restoration activities.

Armed with this knowledge and a plan for the forest’s restoration, Tun eagerly engages with other community members on how to best protect it.

“I am happy that I can contribute to protecting and improving the forest I love, which provides me and my community with food and extra sources of income,” she says.

The project encourages the entire community to get involved in restoration through benefit-sharing initiatives that allow them to take ownership of and use the land to grow food for their families. ©FAO/Enric Català Conteras

Sharing the benefits

Ensuring high survival rate of new seedlings is a crucially important stage of the restoration initiative. For this reason, the project introduced the concept of benefit-sharing, motivating community members to participate. Members of the maintenance group all received a portion of land on which they could plant crops and vegetables to feed their families, on the condition that they maintain and care for the trees as they grow on their plot. Not only does this boost food security for those involved, but it also helps the forest ecosystem by reducing soil erosion through planting crops, supporting natural forest regeneration and ensuring that native tree species grow.

Tun received 1.5 hectares of land from the local Community Forestry committee and, based on the soil condition, has chosen to grow soybeans. “When I have access to extra land, I’m happy because I will be able to generate more income for my family,” says Tun. “This extra income will allow me to invest in my agricultural activities.”

Once the trees will have fully regenerated and provide too much shade to grow crops underneath, Tun and others will continue to benefit from non-timber forest products and be able to sustainably collect firewood through silviculture techniques.

For Tun, this project restored her sense of agency, which was being undermined by the rapid degradation of the landscape around her. The same is necessary for many of the other communities in Cambodia – and worldwide - who rely on forest resources to sustain their livelihoods. The world is losing forest cover at a rate of 10 million hectares each year. This type of loss is why the United Nations launched the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems helping to end poverty and combat climate change. Together, FAO and local communities can help turn the tide, ensuring the health of the planet’s forests and ecosystems for generations to come.  

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2. Zero hunger, 8. Decent work and economic growth, 15. Life on land