Once decimated by illegal logging and encroaching development, ecotourism and conservation have revitalised Kampot’s mangrove forests
Mangrove forests are unique ecosystems. Serving as vital intertidal buffer zones, these brackish estuaries are home to a plethora of animal species and are key indicators of the health of local biomes. In Cambodia, they are also under threat from development, pollution, and illegal resource extraction.
On the nation’s southern coast, in Kampot province, members of the Trapaeng Sangkae fishing community have become stewards of the mangrove forests and winding estuaries that they call home. And their forests need protection.
Driven in large part by unsustainable development projects, swaths of mangroves have been cut down in the area, threatening the fine balance of the ecosystem. Considered a keystone species, mangroves play a vital role in local ecosystems by reducing erosion and pollution and serving as nurseries for the fish, crabs and other aquatic species that are the cornerstone of local diets and economies. But they are under threat.
According to Action Aid, an international NGO partnered with the European Union, in Kampot and neighbouring Kep province mangrove forests have been reduced 62% since 1992. Continued degradation of the ecosystem could have disastrous consequences for the people and animals that call the mangroves home. Understanding the need to safeguard the area’s precious natural resources, community leaders contacted representatives from government and civil society to come up with sustainable solutions for their village’s issues.
With the help of Action Aid the Trapaeng Sangkae fishing community was created with the vision of protecting the area from exploitation and safeguarding it for the next generation. It was registered with the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in 2009, granting the community official recognition of tenure over the land and marking a crucial first step in protecting the area. But village leaders soon realised that sharing the natural beauty of the area with tourists could help bring attention to conservation and rejuvenate the mangroves that are so important to the local ecosystem and the community’s fishing-dependent livelihoods.
After gaining accreditation from the Ministry of Tourism, which formalised the project and provided community members with training in hospitality and hygiene, the seeds of Trapaeng Sangkae Ecotourism were sown. Since 2014, the tens of thousands of tourists that have visited the estuary to enjoy a taste of village life and plant mangrove trees have transformed the forests as well as the economy of the community.
Bungalows are available for visitors to the village, providing unique accommodation directly above the inlets and waterways that rise and fall with the tides. Homestays are also an option for those wishing to take a step further into village life. During the days, the community’s residents can provide guided river cruises that weave through the estuary before heading to the ocean for sunset. Leveraging their knowledge of the area and its wildlife, the community’s fishermen act as tour guides to supplement their income. This added capital also makes them less likely to resort to the illegal fishing and logging that has contributed to the damage to the ecosystem in the past.
Kayaks are also available for rent and of course, the mangrove saplings cultivated by residents can be planted in designated reforesting areas.
Ecotourism is a thriving industry around the world, driven by a growing demand for sustainable options for eco-conscious travellers. Trapaeng Sangkae, with its beautiful scenery, inclusive services and dedication to environmental conservation, provides a great example of how Cambodia can revitalise its tourist sector without sacrificing its precious natural habitats.