In a few days I will be leaving Cambodia, so this will be my last blog posting from here. Inevitably I find myself reflecting on the last 21 months, taking stock and thinking about what the experience has meant to me. And to be honest, this has been a little disquieting.
Small, quiet Sen Monorom has become home and I feel comfortable here. I like this quiet corner of the country with its gentle hills, pronounced seasonal shifts and watching the year unfold from my balcony.
I like the people, who have been welcoming and helped me adjust and who have accepted me into their community. I have enjoyed the challenge of learning new ways of doing things; being introduced to a completely fresh way of viewing the world; and getting to grips with a new language. I’ve had priceless moments as well as times of real despair. But, with no doubt whatsoever, I still have no regrets about coming here.
At the same time though, I came to do a job. I came to manage a WWF programme geared at supporting a vast area of good quality forest and the wildlife it contains. The disquiet comes from thinking about whether this has been achieved – have I been successful? There have been some positives, but these are all pretty modest. When I look at the bigger picture I can’t help but wonder if this is enough.
That is not to say the fight is lost. The forest cover is still extraordinary and there are some dedicated, committed individuals determined to protect this landscape. I can take some satisfaction in knowing that the areas in which we’ve been working have had a level of protection that other areas with no external support lacked – those unsupported areas have been utterly destroyed.
I believe that these splendid forests of eastern Cambodia do have a future but it is far from assured. The problem is that, at the political level that really matters, there is seemingly little meaningful commitment to the environment (in the sense of keeping it alive as a natural heritage of global importance rather than as a source of quick funds) or of any strong desire for partnership.
There is a limit to what professional, well-intentioned and focused groups – like WWF – can do. We can fight to slow the rate of destruction, to encourage and inform, to respond vigorously against illegal actions – and we hope that the prevailing political view will swing towards a genuine belief in the importance and the undoubted, irreplaceable beauty of these forests.
I have to be optimistic that this change will come and firmly believe that the best chance these forests have for survival is through a continued WWF presence, solidly backed by our supporters. This is not an easy task and nor will it be without its setbacks. But the increase in threats and risks to this landscape makes the need for a strong programme all the more pressing.
The time to act is now. Programmes like this are in the vanguard of protecting these forests and, as one of my friends recently pointed out, ‘if not us, then who will step up?’ My friend is right. If we’re not engaged then these forests will disappear. And that’s a future none of us wants.