Background image of School for Future Leaders sign on the back of a car in Cambodia


Under the mango tree, a village’s future unfolds

Using the area’s natural assets to make a better life for themselves and their community all while restoring and protecting local natural capital, social fabric and economic opportunities.

Cambodia — Angkor Wat, this country’s ancient temple complex, may be the eighth wonder of the world, but what’s truly remarkable about Cambodia is what people manage to transport on the ubiquitous 2-seater motor bikes that compete for road space with cars, bikes and other vehicles: entire families of four (dad driving, junior between his legs, mom riding side saddle on the back, cradling baby); 30 melons; 10 bundles of firewood; a bale of rice straw; groceries for a week; rattan cages with chickens, goats, or pigs destined for dinner; a pane of glass; 3 large bags of fertilizer; 6 cases of beer. Those are just a few feats of transportation I saw on the road during the three-hour drive from Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh to Kampot Province.

All of it was a testament to the entrepreneurial spirit of the country and its people: the roads are packed with little stalls and shops, markets are teeming with ancient artifacts and gadgets so new they won’t hit the United States for several more months. Everyone is busy going somewhere, the entire nation relentlessly entrepreneurial and looking forward, as captured by this ad on the back of a tuk-tuk, as the part-trailer, part-motorcycle hybrids are known.

And the most promising form of entrepreneurialism came in the company of 20 or so villagers in Kampot Province, who are working with a local organization with the incongruous name Save Cambodia’s Wildlife on the establishment and management of a community protected area that spans about 2,000 hectares of forestland and nearby coastal areas.

As SCW’s director Boony Tep explained, the protected area was the villagers’ response to a proposed palm oil plantation: they preferred instead to seek economic development opportunities that harness the region’s natural assets in ways that benefit the local population. The local villager who leads the protected area with quiet dignity is one of the few people over 40 I met in Cambodia, and I couldn’t help but wonder how he survived the Khmer Rouge regime that brutalized the country’s population, decimated its wildlife, and created upheaval that has repercussions to this day: forced expropriations and destruction of records during the regime leaves much of the land untitled and at risk of land grabs by unscrupulous companies like the one proposing to turn the forest into a palm oil plantation and the local villagers into wage laborers.

Sitting under the mango tree on the grounds of the local Buddhist temple, which serves as the de facto community center, several working groups of villagers described how they harvest and process goods produced by the lands and waters of the community protected area.

The rattan group built a communal processing shed and nursery where they produce furniture for city markets and seedlings for replanting.

The rattan nursery in Kampot, Cambodia
The rattan nursery in Kampot…
Rattan processing facility, Cambodia
… and the rattan processing facility, nearby.

The traditional medicines group was built on a wealth of local knowledge for the dried herbs, bark and plant barks that they sell for various ailments. A fisheries group enforces a local marine protected area, operates a crab bank — periodically rearing gravid females in tanks and releasing their young to replenish local stocks — and restores mangroves, which are vital nursery grounds for many of the local fish species caught for subsistence consumption and trade.

These groups and other were united in understanding that they want to use the area’s natural assets to make a better life for themselves and their community, while restoring and protecting local natural capital, social fabric and economic opportunities. Put in those terms, the natural model of development we are thinking about seems not such a novel idea to them, but rather self-evident.

All of these activities are underpinned by an innovative, home grown finance program: mostly younger women lead several savings groups, each comprising multiple families. As my host Brian Lund from Oxfam America explained as part of our introductions in his enviable Khmer, they are part of 100,000 people in Cambodia and more than 1 million worldwide that are taking development finance into their own hands, by building their own local savings groups.

The leader of one savings group beamed while saying they had saved well over 10 M Riel, or about $2,500 in less than a year — in a country where the majority of people live on $2 a day or less. The savings groups decide collectively to whom to loan money: typically for working capital, for terms of two to three months, and at rates better than the local microfinance institutions.

When the conversation finally turned to the question what Oxfam, SCW and others could do to support the community’s efforts, the suggestions were practical and humbling: more training, more ideas for including the poorest of their communities in the program, more capacity to take the future of their community in their own hands, perhaps getting involved in politics next.

I had what felt like years’ worth of education in those few hours under the mango tree — furiously scribbling notes, shooting pictures, and soaking up inspiration.