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The Connection Between Livelihoods and Unsustainable Forest Practices in Po Bung Village, Cambodia

ISSUE 2019
No 5
Release 10 April 2019
By Mr. Chea Puthea

Executive Summary

  • The livelihoods of those proximate to natural resources are connected to the conservation of those resources. For more than 15 years, Fauna and Flora International (FFI) Cambodia has worked to conserve natural resources in Po Bung Village (PB). However, these resources continue to be depleted and deteriorated due to increasing population, poverty, debt, health-related issues, and unsustainable livelihood activities.
  • FFI Cambodia initiated a comprehensive research on conservation work in PB by forming a multi-institutional research team.
  • Income and food insecurity lead to unsustainable forest practices. Health issues and debt are further detriments to income and food security.
  • Unsustainable livelihoods activities in PB need to be resolved to ensure sustainability and conservation of natural resources. People need stable incomes and sufficient food from sources which do not threaten natural resources. Access to quality education, knowledge, and skills are also important. Reinforcing sustainable use of natural resources requires commitment from local and national authorities.


  1. Background Information

This study contains the overall research report on the connection between different aspects of local people’s livelihood and unsustainable forest practices at Po Bung village, Dang Peaeng Commune, Koh Kong Province. The purpose of this research is to provide foundations for conservation actions and to provide an update on the current status and condition of Po Bung village, thereby improve existing and future projects and informing relevant stakeholders about the actual needs, risk, and opportunities.

  1. Research Objectives, Questions, and Hypotheses

The objectives of the study are to:

1). Examine the relationship between income and food security and unsustainable livelihood activities in Po Bung Village; and

2). Study how debt and health issues in the village influence the unsustainable forest practices.

There are three main hypotheses found in this study:

1). Income insecurity can lead to unsustainable forest practice;

2). Hunger leads households to enter the forest in search of additional income and food; and

3). Debt and health problems are influencing unsustainable forest practices.

Three major research questions have been identified to answer the objectives of the study. These are:

1). Do people, who earn less or not enough to survive, engage in unsustainable livelihood activities (hunting, logging, and gathering of non-timber-resources)?

2). How do people deal with periods of hunger in order to survive? Are unsustainable activities practiced or are there any different ways to access food?

3). Do debt and health problems bring about changes in local attitudes, behaviours, and habits towards unsustainable forest practices?


All data obtained in this study is primary. This study used semi-structured interviews for data collection.

  1. Target Location and People


  • The research was conducted at Po Bung village and there are four main areas in the village including Chhay Reap, Phum Wat, Sa Phat, and Jaram.
  • A total of 58 people in Po Bung village were chosen for interviews.
  • Among 58 respondents, there are 32 males (55%) and 26 females (45%).
  • 42 respondents (72%) identified themselves as the head of their household.


  1. Method

This research used probability sampling for data collection, and a combination of cluster and systematic sampling were utilised to ensure the effectiveness and quality of the data. Two researchers identified different clustered areas in the village before proceeding to the interview. Then, a household in that cluster is chosen to be the initiating point for the interview. After that, the researchers chose another household from every two houses they encountered. The selection continues until the expected target people are reached.

Three researchers from Fauna & Flora International and Prum Vihearthor were involved in the data collection process, and a total of five days were spent in the village. Before conducting the interview, the researchers held an informal meeting with the authorities and relevant stakeholders in the evening. This meeting was to inform about the interview and its objectives, to inquire about the condition of the village, and to ask for their approval to conduct the interviews. Interviews then began the next day and this process continued for four consecutive days, reaching up to 20% of the total households.

 After the interviews, the main researcher was responsible for data entry, data analysis, and report writing with the support from the researchers’ supervisor to ensure that the finalised report was effective and precise.

  1. Research Limitations

There are several limitations found in this study. First of all, sensitive information on hunting and logging obtained from respondents is likely to not be completely reliable. Secondly, the total sample chosen for interviews cannot represent the whole population. Thirdly, some people might have been unavailable for the interview due to daily livelihood activities. Fourthly, the initial expected sample size was 30%. However, the actual sample size collected was 20% due to the limited time spent in the village and the limited number of researchers collecting data. Lastly, the initial plan was to utilise random sampling. However, this was not possible due to many households not being located in clusters, and the significant distance between houses (some were 5km to 15km from one another).

  1. Research Ethics

Several research ethics were proposed and developed to ensure that all respondents comprehended the purpose of the research and their rights. First, before beginning the interview, respondents were informed about the objectives and their consent for an interview was sought. Then, respondents were informed about their rights in stopping or skipping the interview or questions that they may not want to respond to. After the interview, respondents were assured that the information obtained through the interview would not be distributed to a third-party. It would only be used within FFI and other professional institutions for learning, research, and project improvement purposes. In addition, the names and positions of all respondents would not appear in any forms generated for this study, meaning confidentiality is ensured. Lastly, there weren’t any questions violating people’s right in the interview.

 Key Findings

 Livelihoods of Local People and Forest Activities in PB


Almost all respondents reported having multiple income sources to support their families. 93% of respondents obtain income from growing crops, 69% raise animals for food and sales, 36% work for others for money, and 24% are business owners. The dominant crop grown by the farmers is rice.


Health is an essential factor affecting the annual expenses of most respondents. 93% reported having spent money on health this year. Only 20% of these people could afford health payments, leaving 80% of them facing financial difficulty due to health-related issues. The average money spent on health this year by the respondents is US$344 (data from 26 respondents); while the minimum and maximum amount are US$25 and US$1000, respectively.

Given that most respondents face financial difficulty, it is clearly necessary for them to seek alternative income sources or to work for more hours. The latter is an unrealistic solution because they often suffer from ill-health.


During the past year, 83% of respondents claimed that they do not have enough money to cover their daily expenses, and half of these respondents had to borrow money from others to survive. Being in debt is one of the most prominent problems in the community, considering that 67% of all respondents admitted to having borrowed money from others. Among these individuals, the majority of them were in debt from US$0 to US$500 (79% of respondents in debt), while the remaining respondents have borrowed up to US$1000 and in some cases even more.

Food & Meat Consumption

Nearly half of the respondents (46%) claimed to not have enough food to feed their families in the past year. Fish, chicken, and pork are the main sources of protein for people in PB as nearly 100% of respondents consume them regularly.

Forest Activities

Nearly all respondents (96%) stated that there are more than 10 families in their communities that enter the forest in search of additional income and food. Several respondents even claimed that everyone in the village enters the forest every month.

There are many reasons behind these unsustainable forest practices. According to all the respondents, 82% of people who enter the forest do so for additional income, 80% do so for food, 25% do so for medicine, and 5% do so because it is their culture, tradition, or habit.

Food and income significantly influence people’s activities over forest practices.

  1. Income and Forest Practices

66% of respondents expressed concern about not having enough money to cover their basic needs. Only 19% of respondents believed that they will have enough income to cover their basic needs in the next 12 months. 41% did not believe that they would have enough money to cover basic needs in the future. The remaining 40% were unable to predict whether they would have enough money to cover basic needs in the future. This implies that many people in PB are not confident or positive about their futures.

When in need of an important asset for household utilisation, nearly one-third of respondents (29%) reported entering the forest for more income or raw materials so that their needs are met. Others resorted to borrowing money from others. On the other hand, 39% of respondents confirmed to have regular income by entering the forest in search of food and additional income despite having other income sources. Most respondents who enter the forest do not go alone as they tend to have family members, relatives, or friends with them.

Income Comparison: Past and Present, and its Impact

Compared with two to three years ago, nearly 59% of respondents reportedly earn less than before, 15% now earn more, and the remaining respondents earn the same amount as before. When their incomes declined compared to the past few years, 65% of these respondents needed to log, hunt, or gather non-timber forest products to sustain their livelihoods.

Activities in the forest have decreased gradually due to a few reasons. Firstly, the availability of resources, particularly timber and wild animals, have dropped dramatically. Secondly, people in the community are afraid of the punishment from local authorities for their illegal activities. Finally, many of them now have alternative income sources to support their families. Many would rather do low-risk, easy work than enter the forest (Assumptions based on field observations and several claims by respondents).

In short, the majority of people earn less than they did two to three years ago and, in order to compensate for this, people tend to enter the forest for extra income. 

Forest-Entry Frequency

In relation to the frequency of respondents entering the forest, 87% of respondents who enter the forest do so one to five times per month looking for resources in the forest. Another 11% enter the forest five to ten times per month. The remaining respondents enter the forest more than ten times per month. 83% of the respondents who enter the forest one to five times per month do so less frequently than before. Additionally, 60% of the respondents who go to the forest six to ten times per month do so less frequently.

  1. Food Insecurity and Forest Practices

 More than half of the respondents (53%) claimed to not have enough food to feed their families. Among this group, 11 people reported not having enough food to consume for an average of 3.09 months, and a minimum and maximum of 1 and 7 months. Another 4 respondents in this group also reported having minor food insecurity by not having enough to eat for 2 and a half days on average.

Those who faced food insecurity borrowed money from others (21% of respondents) and entered the forest in search of resources for consumption (16% of respondents).

Generally, fish, chicken, and pork are the main sources of protein for people in PB as nearly 100% of respondents have reported to consume it regularly. However, about 62% of the respondents have also confirmed to have consumed wild meat this past year.

 The respondents who consumed bush meat reportedly obtained these meats from the local market, friends, or neighbours (58%); and from hunting and trapping it themselves in the forest (50%). If wild animals were caught, 28 respondents reported to sell them for additional income and 10 respondents kept it for household consumption.

  1. Health, Debt, and Forest Practices

Health Issues and Solutions

79% of respondents reported having faced a financial crisis when sick or in need of medical services. In order to deal with the issue, 71% of them had to contact their friends, relatives, and families to be lent money. Another 9% of them reported entering the forest for additional resources or income instead of seeking lending.

Debt and Forest Practices

During this past year, more than 83% of respondents claimed to not have enough money to cover their daily expenses, with half of them having to borrow money from others to survive. 36% of the remaining individuals confirmed to have entered the forest to ease the hardship of having no money at all. 67% of the total respondents are in debt in this past year, and this has huge impacts on the attitude, behaviour, and habits of local people towards unsustainable forest practices. In order to recover from debt, 60% of the people in debt confirmed to enter the forest for extra income and additional food.

Solutions to Debt

There are three significant ways that local people in PB have paid off debt these past few years. The methods include engaging in unsustainable forest practices, selling assets (cows, water buffalos, furniture, etc.), and working more time on wage labour and saving. 72% of respondents reportedly enter the forest (35 out of 48 respondents who have gone without money this year), while those who sold assets or worked extra to save more money accounted for 45% and 23% of total respondents in debt, respectively (Some respondents engaged in two or more activities to pay off debt).

Respondents’ indicated solutions to debt illustrate that natural resources around PB are under threat due to an increased presence in the forest, where local people seek extra income to pay off debts.


  1. Health as the Major Factor Influencing Debt, Income, and Food Insecurity

In PB, the influence of health on debt, income, and food insecurity significantly impacts the livelihoods of local people, unsustainable forest practices, and conservation outputs. The high number of people (93%) who faced health issues this past year is a huge concern because a large proportion of these people primarily borrow money as their solution. Furthermore, the average amount spent on health-related problems is quite high at US$344. Thus, they regularly seek the unsustainable solution of entering the forest for extra income.

Additionally, when unhealthy, people cannot engage in daily livelihood activities, and this could lead to an abrupt decline in their income and food generation. It is inevitable that other members of the family will also be affected. For example, most people usually go in search of wild fish for daily consumption but are unable to do so when their physical strength is impacted by poor health.

  1. Debt as the Leading Cause of Unsustainable Forest Practice

This year, 67% of those interviewed in PB reported to have been in debt and to respond to the issue they engaged in unsustainable forest practices.

Indebtedness has contributed to a significant change in attitudes, behaviours, and habits of local people towards unsustainable livelihood activities. Those who depend on agriculture and animal raising need to find additional sources of income, often seeking food from the forest to ensure that their families can survive. For instance, approximately 51% of people in debt (20) confirmed to have entered the forest for extra income and additional food.

There are some major differences between the people in debt in this study and the livelihood project baseline. The percentage of indebted people is similar, but there is a huge disparity in the average debt owed.

The differences in the two studies indicate that people currently have much more debt than in the past (i.e. during project baseline). This has put more pressure on livelihoods to the point where people need to seek additional income, either through working more or seeking food through unsustainable forest practices. This, in turn, leads to the depletion of natural resources.

 Conclusion and Recommendations

 This research report informs understandings of the connection between local people’s livelihoods and unsustainable forest practices in Po Bung village. It stands as a great source of information and evidence to those who wish to better these livelihoods and to make interventions to conserve natural resources in this area.

The key research finding shows that income and food insecurity inevitably lead people to engage in unsustainable forest practices to ensure their survival. Health-related issues are one of the main causes of financial crises in the village as it affects income and food security and contributes significantly to the overall debt. 97% of respondents reportedly experienced health issues this year and 67% are in debt. High rates of debt and health issues affect both income and food security and push people further into the forest, searching for resources to ease their hardships.

There are a few recommendations which could plausibly be enacted to improve the livelihood of people and to protect the natural resources around PB. One is to ensure that incomes and food influxes are stable and adequate to supply their households and needs. To achieve this, technical support to increase the productivity of their existing work is required. For those whose income and food depend largely on cash crops, modernised and reasonable tools, and technological knowledge sharing and training will all be required to increase their productivity and to mitigate threats to their crops. When people’s livelihood are stable, activities inside the forest will subsequently reduce. 73% of respondents who had previously or currently enter the forest, stated that they would not enter the forest if they had enough money and food to support their families.

One of the most important ways to protect the forest and its natural resources is to reinforce and enhance existing laws and regulations in the country and communities. Laws and regulations to protect natural resources exist in Cambodia, yet the main challenge is the quality of enforcing all those laws. There have been news and reports from various institutions about underenforcement and the ineffectiveness of the laws and regulations itself. For instance, during data collection, there were 10 households storing live and dead wild animals inside or around their houses. In addition, one family was cooking a deer during our interview, with the head of the family claiming to have sold some of the deer meat to people in the village. This demonstrated that, in some cases, local people break the law without fear of punishment.

Finally, the improvement of education and knowledge of local people is also essential. Local people need to know the importance of their natural resources and how these resources could impact their lives if destroyed. They also need to have the knowledge to live a healthy life and earn a living without harming their environment. Education will not only bring people out of poverty, but it also raises their standards of living by engaging in sustainable livelihood practices.

It is clearly necessary to conduct further research on people’s livelihoods and conservation efforts, particularly digging deeper into health and debt, because these two issues are major determinants of unsustainable forest practices. Detailed information on rates of common sickness in the area, the effectiveness of the health services, and detailed solutions to debt are important factors that merit future research. Moreover, this particular research did not look into policy, governance, or law enforcement and its implementation. These will also be important topics for future research, as there have cases where existing laws and policies are ineffective, as well as questions relating to effective law enforcement.

The opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Vision Institute.