Thursday, December 18, 2014

Holding the Fort: Cambodia's Hot Gates

(Originally published in the Phnom Penh Post)

"I think I see a cooler in there," said Dante, the cameraman.  I was squinting right beside him, hands placed around my eyes like a scuba mask and then pressed hard against the dusty window.  “Oh yeah… I think I see it.  I bet he ain’t chilling beer in that sucker,” I replied.  It's a bizarre, one of a kind sensation to play peeping Tom at the private residence of a Cambodian police officer.  Weirder yet when our erroneous intel leads to his bedroom door being dismantled.  But the guy had it coming.

About a year prior, while working in Thailand, I got wind of an innovative collaboration between the Cambodian government and a small NGO called the Wildlife Alliance.  Their objective to sustain around 720,000 hectares of forest from loggers, poachers, and massive tourism projects seemed like a real David vs.Goliath proposition, but the model and framework set in place hinted at a possible answer to a question I'd long pondered.  Ten months later there I was playing with school kids, patrolling riverways, and smashing in fine mahogany doors.

In Alex Garland’s best selling thriller The Beach, an overarching theme is the Lennie Small touch of tourism, destroying the beauty of that which it handles.  "Set up in Bali, Ko Pha-Ngan, Ko Tao, Boracay, and the hordes are bound to follow. There's no way you can keep it out of Lonely Planet, and once that happens it's countdown to doomsday," writes Garland, singling out the guidebook that inspired some of my first international adventures.  There is, however, no sense in pointing fingers.  Since Herodotus first poked around the pyramids of Giza tourism has evolved into a rather unstoppable force.  Like the eye of Sauron it scans the planet looking for the next pristine spot.  A guy like me, hosting an off-the-beaten-path travel show, is at the speartip of this process.  Being a bit of a bleeding heart, I’m as vested as anyone to find a solution to this conundrum.  In Cambodia I’d hoped to find one.

The trip started with a visit to Chi Phat, one of those small dusty strip towns indistinguishable from many others I’ve seen in the country save for some pivotal particulars:  It sits near a confluence of rivers leading both to the sea and deep into lush forest stretching all the way to the Cardamom Mountains.  It’s a wilderness full of rare animals like elephants, bears, and big cats; natural wonders like poetry-inspiring waterfalls; and old growth forest replete with rosewood and teak; making it both an ideal destination for adventurous travelers and a big, fat, juicy target for loggers, poachers, and overzealous developers.

Straight off the ferry crossing the Phipot I met Martin Leighfield, project manager for an eco-tourism branch of Wildlife Alliance’s ambition.  By the rivers edge I put him on camera immediately.  After a few rambling takes we honed in on the ideal in a nutshell:  Bait the mighty gaze of tourism and when its armies arrive, corral that energy to proper ends.  Put a firm limit on numbers and channel the money to sustaining the golden goose.  The same brute that steamrolled Phuket and Kuta Beach might not just be contained, but it could theoretically be funneled into a hero’s role.   Part of the idea is to allot the community a large stretch of land from the get go with a hard cap on it.  Other techniques include restricting tourism business to locals and putting 20% of tourist money into town projects.  The model sounds fit, but there are barbarians at the gate, and the gate is groaning from their push.

A handful of NGOs promote educational programs that teach school kids an awareness and appreciation for Cambodia's forests and the laws that hypothetically protect them, but while this environmentally conscious generation comes of age someone needs to hold the pass.  While the Wildlife Alliance and other eco-tourism projects wave small carrots in front of the old guard, someone must brandish the stick.  As a reasonable savvy pre-producer I knew the money shots for our episode would come from finding this Leonidas.  I found two.

In the forest is Eduard Lefter, ex-French Foreign Legion, given to excitable rants and raucous storytelling once you cut through his steely nature and pass from inconvenience to ally.  When we met on the river he seemed convinced I was about to ruin his day, but by nightfall we were swapping tales of hedonism while plowing down the quiet waterways that crept up to the Cardamoms.   Around us on the longtail boat sat three armed Cambodian soldiers.  When the occasional skiff came from the other direction it would, without fail, quickly make way for a piece of the bank obscured with overhanging vegetation.  If you didn't see the shadow of men jumping out into the dense forest or note the ripples from things hurriedly pitched into the water, you could definitely deduce that less people and items were in the boat upon closer inspection.  After a decade of hard-ass river enforcement, poachers and loggers can now spot the outline of Eddy's boat on a dark night like airport security detects a pair of nose hair clippers inside a stuffed handbag.  But it's a five day hike to the farthest reaches of his jurisdiction, and you could fit his entire team on a schoolbus.  I hiked just 30 minutes into the vast territory and straight off the trail found two snares ready to spring and one holding the rotting corpse of a civet.
"What are some of the stranger things you've found deep in there?" I ask him as we filmed the remains of an illegal logging operation, abandoned when the team came upon it.
“Where they take the sassafras root.  They hike it these metal pieces. Four to five days through jungle.  And make a place, I don’t know how you say, where you boil the sassafrass root and take the oil.  That is used to make the ecstasy and amphetamines,” he tells me.
Big jugs of the oil now sit like a massage therapist’s dream in a giant warehouse partially funded by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, who were pleasantly surprised with the team’s hunt and destroy missions that included such labs.  Inside the facility rows of chainsaws, guns, traps, nets, and snares pile up beside a fleet of cars and motorcycles seized from illegal activity.

“OK. We’re good here.” I say to Eddy after we get a couple simple shots of the logging camp.
“Dats it?”  Eddy says with sudden relief.
The last media guy came by just a week ago and surprised his team with a script.  They sweat, swatted at mosquitos, and struggled with lines for 3 hours re-enacting the moments before and after the team sent the illegal loggers sprinting into the forest, chainsaws dropped and humming on the woodchips.  Now I understood his lack of enthusiasm when we met.
“That’s it man.  Travel show.  No acting,” I reaffirm.

On patrol with Eddy

If Eddy is Maverick, Dean Lague is the Iceman:  Calm, unflappable, and silent behind the Wildlife Rapid Recovery team he advises, bringing with him a career of law enforcement experience from Australia.   I had embedded myself with their crew as they patrolled an area near the Vietnam border, looking for poached wildlife making its way across.  This was essentially the last line of defense.  The team would conceal their widely recognized green trucks off the road while informants gave them leads they could spring upon.  

What I’d hoped to find were cute fuzzy animals I could show our audience.  A feel good story about how they would make their way to a recovery center and then be released back into the wild.  We found one:  A sun bear that had the fortune of still retaining its gallbladder (often removed for Chinese medicine) and its paws (removed, often with the animal still alive, for soup).  More often we discovered ice chests full of meat.  It was such a cooler just inside the lawn of a gaudy house that lead to a more thorough search.  Inside the home we found framed pictures hung of the resident, proudly receiving medals of ceremony in his police officer’s uniform.  It’s also where we discovered the locked door.
“This happen often,” I asked, “someone in an official position involved in the trade?”
Dean gave a small, silent nod of his head while the Cambodian team struggled with the door, sweating profusely as they attempted to remove the knob with a huge monkeywrench.
“I bet you’ve kicked open a few of these in your day,” I said.
“Plenty,” He replied, not moving a muscle as the team continued to fumble with the wrench.

Chatting with Dean outside suspect's house

At the end of the day a big bonfire was built and all the seized wildlife meat went up in flame.  I stepped as close as i could to the fire so Dante could get the shot.  It struck me as a shame that the animals died in vain.  Not utilized in the way I romanticize Native Americans used every part of their slain prey, hearts full of appreciation; but I understood the logic of the burn.
“Wait.  One more angle,” said Dante as a faint wind pushed the heat my direction.

Wildlife meat up in flames

Engulfed in smoke rising up to wildlife heaven, I began to wonder if the Athenians would be ready before these Spartans gave up the ghost. If the school kids grown up would join forces with a burgeoning eco-tourism industry and together reach a critical mass of understanding that Cambodia's forests and all that grows and resides within has more value on the long play than the short sell.  Could paradise stay paradise even with all eyes upon it?  The insiders didn't seem rosy about the prospects, but they appeared convicted to fight the good fight tooth and nail.  If I didn't find a solution to my traveler’s dilemma I sure did steal a glance of an exciting clash of ideals and interests.  I always fear returning to a cherished destination to find it sucked dry and in ruins.  How exciting would it be to return to Cambodia 10 years later and discover the experiment worked.  The forests thriving, tourism lucrative and sustainable, and the threat contained.  The people of Cambodia, much like Athens, realized that they had something irreplaceable under attack and they would not roll over.  Xerxes defeated once again.

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