During the 12th century, people came to Cambodia’s Kulen mountain, a sacred place associated with fertility, to cut huge chunks of stone that would have to be hauled down by elephants.
In recent decades, despite Kulen becoming a protected area, people have come not just to pick the sweet lychee fruits from which the mountain derives its name, but to cut trees to sell for luxury hardwood or charcoal in towns further down.
The illegal logging of Kulen national park has laid bare vast patches of forest. As the tree cover has shrunk, the people living on top of the mountain have watched the rain clouds that used to gather above the forest shrink or slip away altogether.
“The big trees that used to be here attracted the rain. When they went, we found we had no water and our area was drying up,” said Yuth Thy.
With funding from The Adaptation Fund, UN Environment has helped the government of Cambodia and partners to establish a nursery and provide materials to grow trees on Kulen.
Since the project started in 2014, Thy, 46, has spent hours every day tending to the seedlings in the hope of stalling or reversing the effects of rising temperatures and erratic rains.
“When I was a girl, there would be lots of rain and even hail and it would get cold. I remember seeing steam coming from my mouth when I spoke. Now there’s less rain and it never gets cold,” she said.
So far, the project has helped the community of around 300 people in Chuop Tasok grow 100,000 seedlings. It has also donated saplings and supported patrol groups in the planting of more than a quarter of a million trees and the protection of 306 hectares of forest from illegal loggers.
“When we start planting, everyone helps,” said Thuch Ron, who heads Chuop Tasok’s community protected area.
“I’ve seen how when this nursery produces seedlings and restores the forest cover, we get more rain and a better rice harvest,” he said.
Previously, when rice harvests would fail due to drought, people would have to sell their animals or possessions to buy food.
The project has eased people’s reliance on rain-fed agriculture and diversified diets by setting up households and schools with training and seeds to create home gardens, wells for year-round irrigation and chickens with coops and training on how to raise them.
The villagers also now have a guaranteed supply of fresh water from a small reservoir dug into the springs a few kilometres up the mountain.
“Before we had this pond it would take a long time to fetch water from this area to take back to the village, and in the dry season it would be very hard to get any,” said Chong Pring, a 25-year-old resident of Kla Khmoum village.
“Now, [water] is captured here and comes straight to our homes in pipes and we can easily use it and have some to water our gardens,” he said.
Another benefit to the increased forest canopy is the abundance of wild honey, which people collect and sell down the mountain—a one-hour ride by motorbike—to tourists and locals in surrounding villages and farms, along with the extra chickens.
But the greatest joy and relief for the people of Kulen has been to see the rains return to their area.
“Before 2014, the rain was too little but now it is better, especially this year,” said Ron.
People no longer must go and forage for roots in the forest when the crops fail. The signs of improved wealth and health are visible in the village of 65 households, where 54 families have home gardens, 25 chickens and paths are lined with trees sprouting avocados, jackfruits and mangoes.
The community has started sharing seedlings with another village in the area that has seen the community protected area’s success at reforestation and set up its own tree nursery to grow seedlings of rare species to restore other cleared areas.
In the local school, children are learning about climate change and the importance of maintaining the forest cover. Thy has already taught one daughter how to produce seedlings.
“I tell her she needs to care for trees and they will care for her, like by providing materials to build a house, and I tell her that when you protect the trees and the forest, they bring you rain and make the weather cooler,” she said.
Thy is one of ten community members elected by the community to look after the tree nursery. She is paid around $7.50 a month to do so, but some days she spends four hours weeding, watering and tending to the seedlings.
“I am committed to this work because I want the next generation to have trees, and some species have already disappeared,” she said.
Ron is very pleased about the training that he and his team received to produce seedlings and is inspiring other villages and generations to restore their area’s greatness.
“I am proud to have set up this nursery in Cambodia, at the top of the mountain. And I’m proud to have brought the rain back,” he said.
For further information on UN Environment’s work in Climate Change Adaptation contact jessica.troni[at]un.org