Climate Story Series: Cambodia

In 2017 I traveled to Cambodia to volunteer with the Elephant Valley Project in the northeast. This region, Mondulkiri Province, is home to an indigenous tribe known as the Bunong. These forest-dwelling people live off the land as subsistence farmers, cultivating land by rotating crop fields, a practice they’ve been doing for centuries.

The Bunong are animists, meaning they believe that every rock, tree, river, and creature has a spirit. In this way, the Bunong respect certain rules between man and nature, protecting habitat and utilizing resources responsibly.

Cambodia is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Here’s one example: Many of the forests throughout the country (particularly in the northeast, along the border of Vietnam) are home to precious rosewood trees, an exotic, endangered wood used in luxury products. It’s illegal to cut these trees. Poachers will come in from Vietnam and illegally log Cambodian forests, the Bunong’s home.

As forests are felled, the natural protection against landslides during the rainy monsoon season is gone. As climate change ushers in stronger storms and wetter rainy seasons, mudslides are becoming more prevalent, displacing Indingeous people, including the Bunong. Cambodia, as a developing country, lacks the infrastructure and support networks for migrants. On top of that, the Bunong don’t want to leave their ancestral home.

The Elephant Valley Project is a home for rescued Asian elephants. To have a home for the elephants, the project needs in-tact forest. To have the in-tact forest, the project works with the Bunong people, whom they recognize are best suited to protect and manage the region. In return, the project supports the education, health care, and livelihoods of the Bunong. The project has now been able to fund rangers who patrol the forests, keeping illegal loggers out. 

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