Banlung, Cambodia – After his two girlfriends started high school three years ago, Thong Samai started selling traditional wine from the jungle he found in the woods to sell along with Coca-Cola and Red Bull at the entrance to Yeak Laom, a sacred lake that is now a popular tourist destination. East Cambodia.
It’s early March and the biggest COVID-19 wave hitting the country is just starting out – though no one knows how bad it will get – and Samai watching as a group of foreign tourists get out of the white car, and walk through her cage to the beach.
“They [tourists] he is afraid to go near me, and I am also afraid that he will give me COVID, but I still risk running the business, ”he told Al Jazeera.
Making between 70,000 and 100,000 riels ($ 17.5 – $ 25) on a good day, 40-year-old Samai, part of the Indigenous Tompoun group that runs the lake, says the money she earned from her family helped keep her children going to school.
Findings have dried up since the outbreak began and during the Khmer New Year, the largest holiday in Cambodia, the lake was completely closed.
The epidemic – the second of its kind in Cambodia and forced to deal with the situation in Phnom Penh and other places – has been a source of tension among Muslims in Ratanakiri province, whose extra income from their spiritual values is vital to their economic well-being and forest health.
Cambodian ethnic groups make up less than two percent of the population and live in the mountains of the northeast such as Ratanakiri.
But they are often encountered by long-rented agroindustrial companies who want to clear forests and plant valuable crops like rubber, heading into the highlands where the Indians have long been.
In the past, Indians practiced farming methods and lived far away from the Cambodian people. But when foreigners began to move to Ratanakiri more than 20 years ago to find more open space and employment opportunities, the indigenous people also began to cultivate and try to find alternatives.
Ratanakiri district has lost about 30% of its value – about 240,000 hectares (593,000 acres) – since 2000, and 43% of the losses came from the original forest, according to Global Forest Watch.
Many areas have complained about the loss of forests that characterize their land.
They hope that tourism will give them a way to make less money and protect the remaining forests.
Near the border of Cambodia and Vietnam, the three Jarai Indigenous villages have been displaced by the Sesan hydroelectric dam for more than 10 years but their biggest fear now is deforestation, where they hope to end tourism.
Eang Vuth, 49, is not Jarai, but has been part of the Muslim community of Pa Dal since arriving in 2009 to learn and demonstrate how electric dams work in Sesan. In the last two years, he has seen the company clear-cut the remaining forest between Pa Dal and its neighboring village of Pa Tang.
Vuth is now working with volunteers from rural areas to turn the two islands of the Sesan River into a tourist attraction where tourists can relax, swim and fish, hoping that the project will prevent companies from cutting down trees to make lumber.
“We can get benefits from these areas … We can use this to show the government that local people can make money from there, so if there is a company that wants to come here and do something, we will say so,” he said, despite concerns in March. if the plague were to protect its right to attract visitors.
A fisherman in the village of Pa Dal and Vuth’s friend, Galan Lveng, 55, sees the environment as a way to stop cutting down their village, and to save another forest for the youth of the village.
“I’m afraid of losing forests because bad people are always there, they look after them,” he said. “If these [ecotourism] planning takes place, ensuring that the community participates. If we can save the trees, I will settle down. ”
Ecotourism has already helped protect the forest around the Yeak Laom lake while Samai has its own cage.
Environmentalist Nham Nea says his natural group Tompoun began receiving visitors and doing business around the lake in 2000.
At the same time, Cambodians from other areas began to take an interest in rural areas, buying or forcing Indian families to obtain “illegal names” – illegal documents issued by government officials – and selling land.
Because the pieces of the village were sold separately, residents of Tompoun in Yeak Laom could not get a public residence permit but after many years of inquiry, 225 hectares (556 acres) of forest and lakes were given protected areas in 2018, and Nea says People have seen fewer stumps – or more expensive prices – on their travels from then on.
Several times a month, members of the Yeak Laom ecotourism committee patrol through the jungle to protect the area. On another trip in February, Tompoun’s bodyguards also reported that a rat trap had been seized by a small fence and seized rattan strings used to catch wild chickens but had not found a stump.
For Nea, the threat of deforestation is part of the local mindset to keep Yeak Laom open to visitors during the epidemic. The site was open last year except for the Khmer New Year, when a travel ban was enacted and all tourist attractions were ordered to close.
“We have a lot of big trees, so if we stay a little longer there will be people who have taken the opportunity to come and cut down the trees, then we are also worried about this,” he said. “But if the government orders us to close, we will do what he says.”
About 60 kilometers (37 miles) by car, Buli Mi is trying to upgrade Lumkud, another lake and a protected area run by the three villages of Tompoun, to be as attractive as Yeak Laom. For Mi, 39, keeping Lumkud’s residential areas open to the plague and prevent illegal logging and fundraising for neighboring villages.
High cost, low cost
In the midst of an order for papaya salad and strong strawberry drinks, Ly Kimky explains that she needs to reduce the space outside the epidemic to save money. He, his wife, and their young son live between the home of his mother-in-law and Lumkud, sometimes sleeping in a tent near the lake to prepare quickly.
But the 29-year-old said it was better than working as a farmer, repeating the complaints of bad weather and the fall of cashew trees and cassava that are heard in Ratanakiri tourist attractions.
“If I work in agriculture, this will be difficult for me, I may not have enough food,” he said. “Here, I can eat leftovers.”
Spending enough money to run the lake is a challenge every month on COVID-19, said Mi.
They need to hire people to monitor the temperature of visitors at home and disperse pesticides as required by the Ministry of Health, even though the number of visitors has dropped.
Monthly profits have dropped from 2 million Cambodian million to 1.5 million ($ 500 to $ 375) and by March the park has been deteriorating for about 12 months, he said.
“We haven’t reached the point where we can close here, but we are facing financial difficulties and we need to find a solution,” he said earlier in March.
Pages in Lumkud and Yeak Laom closed a few weeks later.
Nea said her village had been closed to people outside the outbreak at the beginning of the epidemic, adding that she and other Indian communities were very cautious about infectious diseases after losing many members to the outbreak of cholera 20 years ago.
“Since we’ve been through this before, we’re not like the people of the city, so if we see something strange happening [like an illness], we will hold a ceremony to close the villages, ”he said.
However, while maintaining their cultural and spiritual values, they hope to reopen their control once the plague subsides.
The prosperity of nature reserves – in addition to agriculture – has led to a simpler life for rural people, and an increase in income that allows them to buy motorcycles and mobile phones.
“Time changes people, and when they see how Khmer lives, they love them so much and they are fun, easy and clean,” Nea said. “We are changing [ourselves] Being like Khmer does not mean that we should give up our religion. ”