Flourishing trade in Cambodian cane
Home to a number of indigenous tribes, Ratanakiri province lies nestled in the lush upland forests of north-east Cambodia. Communities eke out a living by growing rice for half of the year, but food shortages due to low yields and increasing family size are common. One source of income is cashews, grown in fields created out of the forest through slash-and-burn. However, this practice is threatening forest biodiversity as well as limiting availability of other non-timber forest products (NTFPs), on which villagers depend for nutrition, building materials, medicines, and money to buy food and other household essentials.
Cambodians have traditionally harvested a wide variety of NTFPs, including numerous species of wild fruit and nuts, resin, honey, mushrooms, medicinal plants, bamboo and rattan. But untapped potential exists for increasing the value of many of these products for rural communities. Bamboo and rattan, in particular, have a range of different uses - as raw materials for house-building and household furniture.
In addition, bamboo and rattan are often fashioned by villagers into baskets, boxes, musical instruments and other handicrafts and sold on a limited basis. However, by learning the technical skills needed to manufacture high quality goods, gaining direct access to markets and learning sustainable cultivation and harvesting practices, villagers can achieve consistent profits while maintaining the forest habitat in which rattan and bamboo flourish.
In order to provide support to forest communities in Ratanakiri, several NGOs in Cambodia have formed the National NTFP Working Group. For example, the Community Handicraft Initiative Project (CHIP), recently launched by the Cambodian NTFP Development Organization (CAN-DO), aims to revive and preserve the skills needed to create traditional arts and crafts among the indigenous Kreung people, whilst also providing training in forest conservation and business skills. CAN-DO executive director Sarim Heang reports that the organisation is supporting two village NTFP enterprises (VNEs), set up in late 2006, where members participate in workshops, demonstrations and informal discussions to learn how to harvest bamboo and rattan in a sustainable manner.
At NTFP workshop in December 2006 attended by CAN-DO and others, techniques were shared for sustainable harvesting and cultivation for bamboo and rattan. Mark Poffenberger, director of Community Forestry International (CFI) - another member of the National NTFP Working Group - emphasised that regular trimming of bamboo is necessary to maintain high levels of plant productivity.
Poffenberger added that the practice of culturing rattan and bamboo is also growing in Cambodia. For example, training is given on how to separate and prepare bamboo seedlings for planting, when to plant, and how to plant three bamboos in a triangle to improve wind resistance. Amanda Bradley of CFI Cambodia reports that community forestry groups are also protecting bamboo and rattan habitat by organising patrols to prevent burning and logging.
Crafting a quality product
To enhance development of bamboo and rattan handicrafts, each VNE supported by CAN-DO holds regular gatherings to discuss methods for improving quality, colouring, pattern, product size and delivery. More formal monthly meetings are held where producers review their achievements and develop action plans for the following month.
Heang notes that VNE members are beginning to understand that customer preferences must be taken seriously to improve profitability. In addition to customer feedback, producers receive support and regular field visits from CAN-DO. Heang notes, "We correct technical mistakes based on what we find at the village production line. They did not previously have the knowledge and skills, so it is a challenge for them to do it well. However, they are 'learning-by-doing' with strong support." These strategies are also endorsed by Poffenberger who believes "improved processing can substantially enhance NTFP values, often raising the gate price of a product by 300-1,000 per cent."
Creating direct market access is also supported by CAN-DO, particularly with rattan back-baskets sold in Banlung town. Producers are now transporting their goods directly to two retailers, cutting out middlemen and thus increasing profits. In addition, with partners such as the Artisan's Association of Cambodia, CAN-DO is assisting producers to design more value-added products, including musical instruments, and home accessories. During the last six months, Heang reports that VNE members have begun to realise that bamboo and rattan will provide significant income for their families, but only if they continue to protect the forest, adopt sustainable methods of cultivation and harvesting, and continually work to improve product quality.
Written by: Treena Hein
Date published: September 2007
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