Forced to leave their villages to work on the Khmer Rouge's collective farms, thousands of Cambodia's indigenous Khmer Daeum—traditional communities native to the Cardamom Mountains—began to return to their forest homes in the late 1990s. While the war protected the mountains' bounty from development, in the decade since hostilities ended, former soldiers, logging companies, and others have launched a new campaign of deforestation. In response to this threat, the Royal Cambodian Government created the 400,000-hectare Central Cardamoms Protected Forest (CCPF) in southwestern Cambodia, part of one of the largest conservation landscapes in Indochina. This forest wilderness is home to more than 30 globally threatened species, including the dragonfish and the Siamese crocodile. Despite its protected status, this area is still under intense pressure from illegal logging, agriculture, and human settlements, as former inhabitants return and new migrants join them.

As part of the efforts to protect this unique habitat, Conservation International (CI) has worked with local communities in the Cardamoms over the last year to increase their participation in land-use planning and natural resource management. At a recent Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) meeting, Program Director Sarah Milne described CI's efforts to integrate population and environment by partnering with other organizations to deliver the region's first-ever health services. According to Jake Brunner, director of CI's Indo-Burma Hotspot, the USAID-funded Healthy Families, Healthy Forests project in Cambodia is a practical demonstration of CI's mission to "conserve the earth's biodiversity and demonstrate that human societies are able to live harmoniously with nature."

A Forest Wilderness Inside a Hotspot

CI's program targets around 3,000 people, 80–90 percent of whom are members of the indigenous Khmer Daeum. They live in dispersed, remote communities, sometimes 1-2 days walk from the nearest road. Families have high fertility rates (5-10 children per woman), coupled with high infant mortality and low life expectancy. While satellite maps show that the majority of Cambodia's population lives along the deforested "rice belt," population in the Cardamoms is still relatively low.

But Cambodia's post-war boom could double the country's population in 35 years, as the young, mobile population—37 percent are under age 15—enters their reproductive years. Cambodians are returning home following the closure of the Khmer Rouge's collective farms, moving onto recently de-mined land, or leaving poor provinces for better opportunities. "The rate of change is quite spectacular," Milne said. Population growth and migration now threaten to overrun the Cardamoms, which were "protected" from exploitation by the Khmer Rouge until they left their forest stronghold in the late 1990s.

Helping People Help Themselves

Deforestation in the Cardamoms threatens Cambodia's fisheries and rice-growing regions. As the wettest place in Cambodia, the forest provides highly valuable watershed services to the rest of the country. Besides population growth, migration, and the resumption of shifting agriculture, other threats challenge the Cardamoms' forests and its biodiversity: wildlife trade with China, illegal logging, corruption, and powerful outside interests.

To combat these threats, CI uses traditional methods, as exemplified by its partnership with the Cambodian government to establish the protected forest. But CI also pioneered new conservation techniques that encourage participatory land-use planning (PLUP) in the local community. Using "PLUP maps"—large-scale, high-resolution aerial photos—and a GIS database, CI fosters stewardship by giving the communities the tools to stabilize land use following the upheaval of war. This new forum for participatory decision-making, recognized by the government and facilitated by CI, helps communities map their resource use, define their rights, and eventually form democratically elected local institutions to manage their resources. As Milne noted, "the key partners are the local and indigenous communities in the target area."

Healthy Families, Healthy Forests

CI's Healthy Families, Healthy Forests project, supported by USAID's Office of Population and Reproductive Health, links reproductive health and conservation through partnerships with CARE International and Save Cambodia's Wildlife. CARE International opened the region's first-ever health post, which was immediately swamped: "The day the health post opened there was a queue out the door, and people waited for hours to see a nurse or a doctor," Milne said. CARE vaccinated nearly all the babies and mothers in the district, trained traditional birth attendants, established an emergency referral system, and consulted with more than 100 women on birth spacing.

To generate demand for family planning and reproductive health services, Save Cambodia's Wildlife, a local NGO that specializes in information, education, and communication (IEC) materials, established women's associations that offered information and resources on new income-earning opportunities, such as new crops like cardamom and resin. However, "until people have enough rice to eat it's hard to think about…anything other than rice," Milne observed.

Why Link Health and Conservation?

Smaller, healthier families exert less pressure on natural resources, not only over the long term as the population decreases, but also in the short term as their vulnerability decreases, allowing them to look beyond their daily survival needs. In addition, healthier people are more effective participants in conservation activities and decision-making: people cannot take care of their resources if they cannot take care of themselves.

Health services—especially primary health care and vaccinations—offer conservationists a new entry point to local communities, strengthening their relationships and making it easier to establish long-term trust. "[S]howing that CI was facilitating health services and collaborating with a health NGO… changed the nature of the relationship we have with the communities," said Milne. Finally, integrating health and conservation programs produces efficiencies in the field; in this case, CARE International was able to capitalize on CI's infrastructure and local knowledge, thus enabling service to more remote areas.

Does It Work?

In 2005, the USAID-funded MEASURE project began gathering health, livelihood, and environment indicators in Cambodia to test the hypothesis that smaller, healthier families put less pressure on biodiversity and natural resources. But some benefits are already apparent: for example, CI used its knowledge and infrastructure to extend CARE's network to an unserved area. According to Milne, "CARE staff had never thought about conservation before," but now they are very supportive. Integrating activities has provided some unique synergies, too: CI's emergency referral system has been used to rescue people from remote villages for doctor visits. And the program has influenced the local government, which has integrated population-environment into its commune development plans.

Scaling up the program to bring these benefits to more people presents additional challenges. While land-use planning is part of conservationists' national strategy, health services are not integrated at the landscape level. USAID's mission in Cambodia is interested in integration as a way to bring health services to remote rural communities, which house 85 percent of the country's population. By drawing on the experience of the Healthy Families, Healthy Forests projects in Madagascar and the Philippines, the Cambodian project might be able to expand beyond the community to work with different levels of government.

Lessons Learned and Looking Forward

To date, CI has learned three lessons from its experience in Cambodia, according to Milne:
1. People need to see the benefits of conservation: "With development opportunities, improvements in health, and improvements in livelihoods, people are able to consider why we would want to conserve biodiversity and manage natural resources sustainably."
2. Communities have the answers: For "every problem we've managed to solve effectively, the answer has come from the community, because they know their resources and they know the local dynamics."
3. Integrating health and conservation requires strong, committed leadership: "Building relationships takes time."

"Nowhere in this part of the world is remote anymore," observed Brunner. A new "growth corridor" connecting Bangkok to Saigon will turn a sleepy little town in the Cardamom region into one of the biggest settlements between the two cities. More access will bring more people and more pressure, but also more opportunity for conservation-friendly development, such as tourism and non-timber forest products. Although the future of Cambodia's Cardamoms may be very different, since the program began a little more than a year ago, "we've been able to lay a foundation for conservation in the long term," said Milne.

Drafted by Meaghan Parker.


  • Sarah Milne

    Director of Program, Conservation International/Cambodia
  • Jake Brunner

    Director, Indo-Burma Hotspot, Conservation International