Web of mistrust snags forest-protection programs in Cambodia

Attempts to promote trade in forest-based goods have had limited success, despite consumer interest.
Degradation has made lucrative NTFPs harder to acquire, including delicious spiders — a species of tarantula, Haplopelma albostriatum.

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Fry a tarantula, save the rainforest?

Forest-based goods such as bamboo, rattan, and yes, edible spiders — a delicacy in Cambodia — can provide an incentive to protect tropical forests in the Southeast Asian country. But formalized programs to promote sustainable trade in such products while boosting local people’s incomes have left communities there disillusioned, new research has found.

This disillusionment can undermine the projects and threaten the protection of the forests that provide such goods, known as non-timber forest products (NTFPs).

Why? A recent study, “No forest, no NTFPs for rural communities in Cambodia,” noted numerous reasons including:

  • gaps in information regarding local communities’ access to markets;
  • a lack of capacity to process raw NTFPs into marketable items;
  • ambiguity over payment of royalties on NTFPs, which squeezes profit margins; and
  • a lack of trust in local government tasked with aiding the projects.

Eighty percent of Cambodia’s rural poor depend on forests and agricultural land for subsistence and livelihoods, and income from forest products other than wood can represent around USD200 a year per person.

Thus, NTFPs “can represent quite a big part of the money that local people earn,” said study co-author Manuel Boissière of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the Agricultural Research Center for International Development (known by its French acronym, CIRAD). “People grow rice for food, and then they have these products that they collect and they try to sell them.”


The researchers said that donor-funded development projects intended to boost sustainable NTFP trade — initiated with Cambodian government support — are typically greeted with enthusiasm by locals. This optimism evaporates, however, when the projects fail to produce the results the locals are hoping for.

Much of this sentiment arises from misgivings about government officials, researchers found. Bureaucracy, petty corruption by police and military, and ineffective efforts to help by forestry officials with conflicting responsibilities — including catching illegal loggers and smugglers — helps to paint government as a “coercive institution,” the researchers write:

[Local people] see the local government as the one holding the stick, collecting informal fees and royalties and are therefore sceptical of the assistance being offered. The local government officers’ lack of knowledge of the local communities and familiarity with the local people need immediate attention.

As a result, the researchers write, many local people seek out other sources of income, including illegal hunting and logging, which degrade the forests.

This degradation has made lucrative NTFPs harder to acquire, including those delicious spiders — a species of tarantula, Haplopelma albostriatum.

Boissière said the tarantula, which can grow to about the size of a human hand, exemplified the difficulties local people face supporting their livelihoods with NTFPs in Cambodia.

“[The spider] lives underground. People fry it. When buses stop at these big restaurants on the main roads you will have people waiting outside with a plateful of spiders. People will buy them as a delicacy,” Boissière said.

But although the spiders have a market value in Cambodia, communities often had limited information about the prices they could fetch, making it hard for them to negotiate with middlemen, and cutting into their profits.

When buses stop at these big restaurants on the main roads you will have people waiting outside with a plateful of spiders

Manuel Boissière

The research — which focused on 16 Cambodian communities between 2003 and 2009 — was carried out in partnership with the Cambodian Department of Forestry, which has faced conflicting demands from other government departments about how to manage forests, Boissiére said.


Attempts to promote trade in four forest-based goods — spiders, rattan, bamboo, and resins used in activities such as boat building — through provisions in the forestry law and officially recognized ‘community forests’ have had limited success, researchers found. The main challenges included transport, extortion of ‘fees’ at road checkpoints during transport to market, legal ambiguities and local communities’ lack of market information.

Ambiguities in the law hampered efforts to promote the trade — for example, a conflict between articles in the forestry law and in the community forestry sub-decree on payment of royalties on community sales of NTFPs. In other cases, law enforcement agencies were able to justify extracting “fees” at transit checkpoints from customary users of forests — users who should have been exempt from such fees.

Researchers suggested mobile phone networks, accessible even in many remote areas, could be used to keep communities in touch with market demands. Nurseries could be developed for rare but marketable plant species.

They also noted that traditional skills and products were disappearing amid lack of raw materials and increased use of more modern tools. Ecotourism could help with this, they said, but many of these villages lack infrastructure for tourism.

Transport remains a key limiting factor generally, but greater access also carries its share of risks as new roads make it easier for outsiders to come in as well, who may also want to exploit the forest or the land it stands on.

Boissière said the creation of legally enforceable “community forests” may offer a solution to some of these problems, and could help build better relationships with forestry officials, but said that the process of establishing a community forest is slow.

The study concluded with recommendations for future NTFP development projects in Cambodia — but with some key caveats to avoid repeating previous mistakes.

Chief among them: that local communities participate in the initial project design, with a discussion of needs and expectations.

Other recommendations include training for villagers on sustainably managing NTFPs; long-term funding from the government and the international community for reforestation; and the development of community groups to share access to markets and market information.

Such measures, the researchers said, could rebuild trust among stakeholders and secure a fairer price for the eight-legged delicacy that Cambodia’s forests provide.

For more information about this research, please contact Manuel Boissière at

This research was funded in part by ITTO and conducted by CIRAD. It forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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Topic(s) :   Community forestry