The Mekong river stretches 190 kilometres in Kratie and Stung Treng provinces. Various points in the stretch have been designated as protected areas for Irrawaddy dolphins and flooded forests, which contain natural resources and biodiversity.
The stretch is also home to local communities who have teamed up with their provincial neighbours to create dolphin pool eco-tourism communities and take advantage of eco-tourism initiatives to earn additional income and improve the lives of their families.
Khmer Times reporter Pech Sotheary spoke to members of these communities to find out more about how they rely on protected areas for income.
Kratie & Stung Treng provinces – Hean Koeun sits on a small boat while waiting for tourists who wanted to visit islands and watch dolphins at the Kampi dolphin pool in Kratie’s Prek Prasab district.
The 66-year-old tour boat operator says he has been with the Kampi dolphin pool eco-tourism community in Kratie for more than one year, and he is able to earn between $4 and $8 per day, depending on the number of customers.
“A boat tour costs tourists about 40,000 riels [$10] each – the boat can take up to five tourists,” Mr Koeun says.
“However, the money is divided. The provincial administration gets 20,000 riels, a local community gets 5,000 riels and we get to keep the rest,” he adds. “We can earn 30,000 riels if we take tourists on tours twice per day. The money can be used to support our families.”
Mr Koeun says when he is not driving tourists, he is a fisherman who has relied on the Mekong river for many years.
He says that over the past few years, the fish yield has dramatically declined, forcing many freshwater fishermen to find additional means to earn a living.
“In the past, I was able to get many fish – enough for consumption and make prahok,” he says. “But now, I cannot even catch one or two kilogrammes for my family to eat.”
“I am getting older and I cannot find other jobs aside from being a tourist boat operator,” Mr Koeun adds.
He says eco-tourism tours are popular among visitors because many of them want to ride in a boat along the Mekong river to observe flooded forests and watch rare birds and dolphins.
Mr Koeun says many tourists are also interested in camping on the islands of Sam Beb, Han, Khsach Kpous, Pdao and Trung.
He says becoming a member of the local eco-tourism community has been beneficial as members help organise food, souvenirs and programmes to visit protected areas.
A campfire on Sam Beb lights up the night, illuminating the face of Ou Sokha, a representative of the Kampi dolphin pool eco-tourism community.
Mr Sokha’s facial expression shows that the 63-year-old is intent on preserving natural resources and preventing illegal logging and fishing.
He says he has been with the community for more than one year.
“In the past, illegal fishing activities through the use of banned electrical equipment were everywhere,” Mr Sokha says. “However, after we set up an eco-tourism site – with camps – illegal fishermen did not dare to come here.”
“Some illegal loggers have joined us so we have curbed illegal fishing and deforestation,” he says.
Mr Sokha says the community on Sam Beb island last year received more than 200 tourists, earning more than $3,000 combined.
He says he is now asking provincial authorities and other government institutions to help by building roads and bridges for the site so tourists can travel.
People in Kratie are not the only ones to have been gearing up to take advantage of eco-tourism. Villagers in Stung Treng have established eco-tourism sites at the Preah Nimith waterfall and Ream Sa area, while others established the Preah Rumkel eco-tourism community.
In Stung Treng, Ba Phen, 55, a member of the Preah Rumkel, says she grew up as a rice farmer, whose family fished along the Mekong.
Ms Phen says she joined Preah Rumkel in 2018 because being a farmer or a fisherwoman did not yield much income.
She now provides tourist services to visitors and her family has been able to improve their living condition.
“Most of the tourists coming here want to see the dolphins, but they also come here to visit islands and enjoy local delicacies,” Ms Phen says. “Our people have been able to earn income from selling food, souvenirs and boat services.”
“Our people in the village can also make a living by selling tourists vegetables, fruits and fish,” she adds. “The revenue from this has made people reluctant to conduct illegal fishing activities as many had rekindled their love for natural resources – making them want to protect natural resources instead.”
Dorn Pan, a river guard working with Preah Rumkel, says eco-tourism contributed to curbing the practise of illegal fishing and encouraging the protection of natural resources and wildlife.
“In the past, people in the area though dolphins were not important […] they did not realise their value,” Mr Pan says. “Once the people saw foreign tourists visiting and spending money to see dolphins, the people began to be aware that they can earn more income.”
The role of civil society
Eco-tourism communities in the two provinces were created through the support of civil society organisations who collaborated with ministries and other government institutions.
These organisations facilitated the establishment of these communities and provided technical skills.
NGO Forum, World Wildlife Fund, Non-Timber Forest Products-Exchange Programme, Culture and Environment Preservation Association and the Regional Community Forestry Training Centre developed several initiatives, such as the Partnership for Forestry and Fisheries and Shared Resources Joint Solutions programmes to help the livelihoods of local villagers.
The organisations collaborated with Kratie and Stung Treng provincial administrations to build capacity, technical skills and organise and manage eco-tourism services.
Nob Vannarith, provincial coordinator for NTFP-EP in Kratie, says civil society organisations are aiming to improve living conditions of villagers and promote natural resources conservation.
“We are helping to improve living conditions of local communities by turning them away from [harvesting] forest and water resources to providing tourism services,” Mr Vannarith says.
“Our core work is conservation – tourists will not just go and visit eco-tourism sites, they will receive additional knowledge on the importance of natural resources and biodiversity along the Mekong river,” he adds.
Impact and the future
Kitty Van Bouen, a tourist from the Netherlands, has just concluded a tour of the Mekong river in Stung Treng.
She says she is in the Kingdom for the first time and she and her family spent many days meeting river communities in Kratie, Stung Treng and Kampong Cham provinces.
Ms Van Bouen says she and her family came to Cambodia to see flooded forests and endangered birds and mammals, such as the Irrawaddy dolphin.
“There is no dolphin in my country, and the rivers in my country are not as long as the Mekong river here,” she says. “I’m glad to be here – the Mekong is so long and beautiful – it is really amazing to me.”
Tuy Bunsereyrathmony, deputy governor of Kratie, says areas along the border with Stung Treng hold great tourism potential due to their landscapes, flooded forests and biodiversity.
“Eco-tourism is very important as it has provided economic benefits and improved living conditions,” Mr Bunsereyrathmony says. “We can all participate together to protect natural resources and critically endangered animals.”
He says provincial authorities are striving to develop roads and bridges to strengthen the eco-tourism industry.
Environment Minister Say Samal says the government is aiming to promote income generation for local communities rather than relying on harvesting forests.
Mr Samal says the government wants to create new opportunities to improve livelihoods.
He says the ministry will collaborate with its partners to organise community training for the management of livestock and crops for daily use and to supply local markets.
“The Ministry of Environment wants to see more smiles and stronger solidarity in communities,” Mr Samal says. “We want them to have a progressive community-based economy and participate more in protecting natural resources.”