Linking communities to conservation

Khampaeng Phatvisay from Son Koua Village in Houaphan Province, Lao PDR, Sreuk Pich, chief of O’rona Village in Mondulkiri Province, Cambodia, and Saw Htoo Tha Po from Taninthayi Region, Myanmar share something in common. Through the WCS Mekong Drivers Partnership, all three have gained greater certainty over access to their own natural resources and are now better placed to benefit from their use.

The approach in each place has differed, but through WCS efforts in partnership with local governments across target high biodiversity landscapes in Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar, 18,500 households across 180 villages enjoy more robust and equitable land use management. This has then helped them to start up a variety of business enterprises that enable them to increase their income whilst preserving their natural environment.

Securing land tenure

The WCS approach to ensuring improved community resource stewardship and strengthening protected area management in high biodiversity landscapes follows a similar pattern across the region, despite different legal mechanisms applying in each country:



In Cambodia, local people receive user rights and benefit-sharing agreements over natural resources under Community Protected Area agreements or Indigenous Land Titles.



In Lao PDR, WCS contributed to the development of a Participatory Land-use Planning (PLUP) manual that mandates a nine-stage, bottom-up process in integrated community land-use planning.



In Myanmar, WCS has helped develop new models of community land-use planning, and has applied the approach in forest-user villages around the Tanintharyi Nature Reserve, enabling them to identify their traditional lands, key resources, and document local rules. Lessons learned have fed directly into national Land Use Policy.

Raising Awareness on Land Rights

WCS conducts awareness campaigns in villages bordering the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area in Lao PDR to explain local communities’ rights to land and the laws that are in place to protect that access. Empowered with the new understanding of how they benefit from conservation, those communities have developed new local regulations for protected area management around their villages.

Participatory land use planning

When Saw Htoo Tha Po’s grandparents were alive, land throughout the Taninthayi Region, Myanmar was demarcated informally. Now through a formal land use planning process, different zones are formally identified, local people better understand the value of their own traditional resources, and the government and Karen National Union recognize traditional ownership of those lands.

WCS promotes government-supported, participatory, land-use planning as a critical step towards developing conservation management arrangements. Communities are responsible for defining different zones, including total protection and controlled use zones, areas for NTFP (Non-Timber Forest Products) collection and community fishing. Their involvement ensures community support for a protected area and reduces conflict between local people and government authorities.

Village use zonation map for 2017 in Myanmar’s Taninthayi Region

Community awareness-raising in Taninthayi

Saw Htoo Tha Po and team

Linking Communities

  • Empowering local communities through greater resource security, and where possible recognized land tenure, increases their stake in the successful management of protected areas. But any agreement that potentially curtails people’s resource use must be grounded in a participatory planning process that leads to an agreement based on free, prior and informed consent. Such a process takes considerable time and effort on the part of multiple stakeholders and must be consistent with local legislation.

Conservation Enterprises

WCS is taking a ‘double bottom line’ business approach to developing conservation enterprises in the region. That means that the enterprise needs to be both economically viable, as well as link directly to conservation outcomes. Without market demand or conservation benefit, it’s not going to work!

The WCS Mekong Drivers Partnership supports several conservation enterprises, including nature-based ecotourism and conservation agriculture projects that connect income-generating livelihood activities with conservation gains. These enterprises provide a positive incentive for behavior change, whilst reducing pressures on forests and wildlife. WCS-linked conservation enterprises have won several international awards – the Equator Prize, the World Bank Development Marketplace, the Wild Asia Responsible Tourism Awards and the World Responsible Tourism Award.

Direct payments for conservation action

Souen Savin earns a small amount of money to protect the nest of the rare Giant Ibis that she found close to her village in Cambodia. The bird nest protection scheme pays local people for their conservation efforts when they locate nests. They receive an additional bonus if chicks successfully hatch and leave the nest. In 2017, 78 local people from 18 villages near the protected areas of Cambodia’s Northern Plains were directly employed and trained to protect nests of threatened birds; 162 globally threatened bird nests were protected, fledging 291 chicks. At Prek Toal Core Area, 42 community members were paid to protect more than 30,000 nests per year.

Having learnt from the nest protection scheme in Cambodia, WCS Myanmar has now established a similar scheme in and around the Ayeyarwady River basin to protect the numerous globally threatened bird species there.

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Bird nest protection

Bird nest protection

Black-bellied tern chick – Asia’s rarest baby?

Ibis Rice farming

Ibis Rice farming

Choeum Yadh in her Ibis Rice field at Tmatboey, Cambodia

Co-operative fishing with dolphins

Co-operative fishing with dolphins

Sustainable livelihoods for local fishing communities in the WCS-supported Ayeyarwady Dolphin Protected Area, Myanmar.


Research has confirmed that conservation enterprises can both protect biodiversity and ecosystem services and alleviate local poverty. WCS has been measuring the impacts of payments for ecosystem services (PES) and conservation enterprise models for biodiversity, forests and poverty in Cambodia since 2002, and in Lao PDR since 2007. WCS is sharing lessons learned from these projects, resulting in the replication of successful models elsewhere in the region. Analysis has shown that making direct payments for conservation action to individuals is a fundamental element to setting up a conservation enterprise, while the social monitoring associated with the conservation enterprise makes it more sustainable over the longer term.


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The WCS Drivers Partnership has started community-led ecotourism enterprises in 46 villages, benefiting 40,000 people, in the Lower Mekong and Ayeyarwady River basins. The recent focus of the WCS Drivers Partnership has been to expand, deepen and replicate WCS’s flagship ecotourism enterprises in suitable locations in the region. Regional exchanges have allowed for other WCS country programs to learn from the established models at Tmatboey in Cambodia and Nam Et-Phou Louey in Lao PDR. As a result, new fledgling enterprises are now operational in the Ayeyarwady River delta and Taninthayi in Myanmar, and Keo Seima in Cambodia. The most established ecotourism enterprises are the Nam Nern Night Safari in Lao PDR and the Tmatboey Community Lodge in Cambodia.

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The Nam Nern Night Safari in Lao PDR has generated $180,000 since 2010, with 1,100 households from 14 villages earning $5,000 in community dividends and $30,000 in service provider wages in the year 2017. In response to the feedback of satisfied visitors who wanted to stay longer in the stunning forest, exciting new additions to the river safari include wildlife conservation trekking trails and overnight accommodation, involving 12 new villages in a different part of the protected area.

The WCS-supported Ayeyarwady Dolphin Protected Area project is a first for Myanmar. Tour companies pay a conservation fee to local communities. The revenue goes towards supporting livelihoods and conservation action by local fishermen and authorities. The project was developed following a government decision to halt construction on what would have been the first mainstream dam on the Ayeyarwady River, in response to public concerns regarding the potential environmental, social, and livelihood impacts of the dam. The project promotes sustainable livelihoods for local fishing communities through ecotourism on the Ayeyarwady River, and expands protection to the remaining population of Irrawady Dolphins in the area.

Tourist numbers visiting Cambodia’s Northern Plains are around 500 per annum, generating $35,000 in community dividends each year. WCS Cambodia’s ecotourism partner, the Sam Veasna Center (SVC), works with local communities that recognise the importance of their local wildlife for international tourism. Having started small, working with the community in Tmatboey, SVC has been able to replicate its ecotourism model and now brings tourists to multiple sites in the protected areas of Cambodia’s Northern Plains and the Jahoo Gibbon Camp in Mondulkiri.

Communities in Southern Myanmar see a community ecotourism enterprise as a good way to benefit economically and sustainably from their natural resources. Village leader Saw Harry from Kanyin Chaung village in Taninthayi Region is spearheading a process to have a public protected forest established over the village’s traditional mangrove forest. Having learnt from experiences in Northern Cambodia and Lao PDR, he realizes that official recognition of the community’s mangrove forests will allow him to stop other villages cutting down the mangrove trees for commercial charcoal.


Choem Yadh is one of 28 female-head-of-household Ibis Rice farmers at Tmatboey village in Cambodia’s Northern Plains. Since the government recognized her local Community Protected Area and the different zones that it encompasses, she has gained official ownership over her home and rice fields. This has given her the economic security she needed to invest further in her rice-growing enterprise and a small cashew nut orchard. By participating in the Ibis Rice scheme, she has agreed to grow organic rice in accordance with a locally agreed land use plan that protects the surrounding forest. In return she is paid a premium for her produce.

As the WCS Mekong Drivers Partnership flagship conservation enterprise, the Ibis Rice scheme has 680 farming households across 12 villages participating. In one year, farmers produced and sold around 80 tonnes of Ibis Rice. With its strong focus on adding value to local Cambodian produce, the Ibis Rice brand is allowing local rice farmers to take their sought-after commodities to international export markets. On average, a household earns $765 from its sales of Organic Wildlife Friendly rice and style,315 from Organic rice to Ibis Rice. WCS is taking the lessons learned from Ibis Rice and translating them to other fledgling conservation enterprises in the Lower Mekong and Ayeyarwady River basins.

Mars Foods is committed to purchasing only sustainably grown rice by 2020. The Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP) sets the standards that it will expect its suppliers to adhere to. Applying the SRP standards to rice provides a solution for supporting farmers in the grasslands of Cambodia to add value to their rice in a way that allows Bengal Floricans and other grassland birds to continue to flourish alongside their human co-habitants.

Shade-grown coffee is three times as valuable on the international market as maize and does not require the felling of forest to grow it. In the highlands of Houaphan Province, Lao PDR, WCS is working with commercial partner Saffron Coffee to train interested local farmers on coffee production.

WCS has also trialed bamboo, growing fodder for pigs, non-timber forest products (NTFP) and small-scale agro-forestry. NTFP has shown potential but a lack of demand and access to market has limited the potential success of the other trials.

Cambodian Ibis Rice snack packaged and ready for the international consumer markets

Local agricultural products enjoyed by ecotourists at Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area, Lao PDR

Young coffee plants flourishing in the shade of the forest near Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area, Lao PDR

Bengal Florican in grasslands of Cambodia’s Northern Tonle Sap Protected Landscape

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