In my 8 years here I have had some rather wet expeditions but this one, despite being only 5 days long, was probably the wettest I have endured. Normally when it rains out here it does so in a big way, having said that it normally only rains for an hour or so a day. On this trip, when it wasn’t raining properly it just drizzled as it does in the UK. Almost every shot in the film I just produced has rain and it made filming very hard. The NGO I was with, Conservation International (CI), wanted to do another short film straight after but I decided to put it off for 6 weeks as the rains should stop by mid October.
We travelled to Thmar Bang, which is in the central/southern part of this huge mountain range. The Cardamoms are the largest single tract of forest remaining in mainland south east Asia and there are still parts that have never been explored. I am hopeful I will get a chance to get up on the plateau in the middle of the range, sometime in the coming months. There are no roads and the only way in is either a 5 day walk or by helicopter. As it costs $1,500 an hour for a helicopter here that’s sadly not an option for me.
A friend of mine did go on a brief trip up there a couple of years ago and came back with some amazing stories. He managed to walk right up to a wild deer, which just gave him a puzzled look as it had no idea he might be a threat. One conservation NGO is talking about helicoptering in a study team for a week or so and I might have a chance to hitch a ride, fingers crossed on that one.
The point of this trip was to document the implementation of CI’s recent strategy, which is to sign what are called “Conservation Agreements” with several communities throughout the area. These agreements provide financial rewards for stopping land clearance, stopping hunting and for protecting specific highly endangered species, such as the Asian Arowana (Dragon Fish) and the Siamese Crocodile.
The agreements are fairly complex as they include penalties if people break their side of the bargain. Most importantly these agreements have seen a great change in attitude from the local communities.
When CI and other NGO’s first started working in this area they were more than a little heavy handed as they concentrated solely on law enforcement. This really upset local people as they are basically subsistence farmers and relied heavily on forest resources for their survival. In 2005 a new country director took over at CI and they started to engage more with the locals. Initially there was a lot of resentment but the introduction of these agreements has made a huge difference.
Money goes to a community fund, which the community then decides how to spend. One community bought water buffalos so they could regenerate the old rice fields around their village. The following year, after problems with the health of some animals and the lack of easy access to medicines, they decided that small tractors (known as mechanical mules) were a better option. These thing are very versatile and provide transport, easy ploughing and an electrical source they can use for ceremonies and other village events, they also don’t get sick.
Anyway back to the rain. From Thma Bang we headed east by motorbike (small set through type) accompanied by the team from CI and the District Governor who was along for the signing ceremonies that would take place. Needless to say it rained the entire way and we arrived just as it got dark. The next morning we went to a ceremony nest to the village school to sign this years agreement.
Another part of these agreements is to provide financial support to teachers. Teachers don’t generally wan to work in these remote villages as they are so poorly paid by the government. CI pays them an additional $25 per month which is enough to ensure they will stay. The locals are very happy about his as they realise the importance of educating their kids.
It never stopped raining and in the end I had to abandon any hope of recording an interview with the teacher and decided to instead go with the local ranger patrol team to look for snares and illegal activities, needless to say it continued to rain. I managed to do some quick interviews with the village head and the teacher but it was an uphill battle against the rain. In the end I had 4 attempts at interviewing the teacher each time having to run for cover after just a minute or so.
The next morning we rode for about 3 hours in dreadful weather to the next village. The ox cart tracks we had to follow were all but impassable in places, I think I walked at least half the time while my driver took the bike through the mud or on a major detour through the forest. I have had much harder journeys here in the past but it was far from pleasant. I think my personal best (or worst) is 5 hours to go just 6km by bike, but that’s another story.
This was the third day and it did not stop raining all day, I conducted just 2 interviews all day as we couldn’t compete with the noise of the rain. We returned via another village in the afternoon where they had another signing ceremony before heading back to dry out.
The 4th day was relatively dry, it only drizzled most of the time, so I could at least get some interviews on tape and record some all important B-roll around the village. Mid afternoon we headed back to Thma Bang where we planned to stay at the Ranger station. The rain didn’t let up and half way back we found ourselves trapped between 2 rivers for around 3 hours while the levels dropped enough to get safely across. We had to abandon some of the motorbikes at the largest river when it just became too dangerous to bring the rest across. We reached the last river at Thma Bang around 8pm but the level of this one meant we would have to spend the night in the only house on our side of the river, all 10 of us. The family managed to squeeze us all into their wooden house and somehow found enough food to feed us too.
In the morning it was onto the Ranger station and more interviews and filming some of the stuff the rangers and locals have confiscated. It’s quite and impressive collection and includes thousands of snares, animal skins, many luxury woods and numerous weapons, including several home made guns, which are very strange looking contraptions.
After 5 days of almost continuous rain I was very glad to get back to Phnom Penh and get my stuff dried out. Thankfully the camera seems to have survived this trip.
The video from this trip can be seen on my “Films” page