Deep in the Cardamom Mountains of southwest Cambodia, lies a small village named Chi Phat. This remote town of less than 3000 people has become a shining example of the impact of community-based ecotourism. It lies in one of the most intact forests in Southeast Asia and is home to multiple endangered species including dhole, sun bears and clouded leopards. Before the early 2000s, Chi Phat was impoverished and highly dependent on illegal poaching and deforestation for food and income. That’s when Wildlife Alliance offered a hand and began promoting programs and training to generate income for not only the villagers, but the community as a whole.
Since the new programs were introduced, the town has expanded to include a school, a health clinic that offers maternal health services. The town is also regularly visited by the Kouprey Express which provides lessons on environmental and wildlife conservation such as pollution prevention, waste and sanitation, energy use and more. Since the beginning of the project, the illegal activities of smuggling, poaching and slash-and-burn farming has decreased an estimated 70%.
Chi Phat now offers many activities for tourists run by the local community, such as swimming at the waterfalls, night fishing, and traditional Khmer cooking classes. In the close surrounding areas, visitors can choose from trek and mountain bike to explore the village and nearby forest, bird watch from traditional row boats, enjoy wildlife excursions at popular waterholes, or visit the local bat caves and burial grounds. There is also an insightful half day trip to the Million Tree Nursery where visitors can see how the forest is being regenerated and how over 99 species of tree seeds are handled from gathering to planting, afterwards planting a tree themselves to add to the legacy.
Today, many of the guides and forest rangers are former poachers who not only share their history and beauty of the forest, but also protect it from the poachers who remain. The community is learning that by protecting the flora and fauna, they can attract more tourists, therefore generate more income for Chi Phat, while working tirelessly to restore the ecosystem to its former glory. With the introduction of ecotourism, most villagers have acquired better jobs and go through their days knowing they are doing something that’s not only good for themselves and neighbors, but is setting a brilliant example and impacting the planet.