Many local communities in Cambodia have little control over the management of their land and other natural resources, and consequently little incentive to actively engage in the conservation of these areas. WCS and government partners have pioneered efforts to help local communities obtain land tenure rights, and engage in economic activities such as ecotourism and the cultivation of wildlife-friendly produce, that are compatible with conservation. In this way, local communities have an economic incentive to engage in conservation.
Rural communities rarely possess legal tenure for their land, even when they have inhabited an area for many years. The country's legal system was devastated by more than three decades of civil conflict, while low levels of education and literacy in the countryside mean that rural communities are often unaware of their land rights. As a result, they are vulnerable to illegal 'land grabbing' by a rich and powerful elite who hope to benefit from high land prices and weak law enforcement to seize rural land for subsequent re-sale at a substantial profit. This means that rural communities have little incentive to manage their land sustainably.
There is also little economic incentive to manage land efficiently. Most villagers are small-scale farmers who cultivate rain-fed paddy rice during the wet season, for sale to traders and middle men. These farmers use low input and low output agricultural systems suited to their subsistence existence. The communities are often geographically isolated, with very few traders visiting the village; as a result, those that do make the journey are able to set very low prices for the rice they purchase. Since farmers also have no access to credit, they often resort to borrowing money from these traders to purchase the following season's rice crop, further enhancing their dependence on them.
With growing human populations, the pressure on land resources is increasing, leading to widespread forest clearance in key conservation sites and protected areas, and conflicts between communities and government agencies responsible for conservation. Community members have little incentive to abide by national laws, particularly those that protect the forest estate.
Successful wildlife and habitat conservation therefore depends on engaging them through tools that directly link local economic and social development to environmental conservation, particularly limiting deforestation.