Thinking outside the protected area box: Exploring conceptions of nature conservation in Cambodia

Fields of Research
Cambodia is a country at the intersection of rapid development and pressure to conserve remaining forested areas. Nature conservation is a stated priority of the Royal Government of Cambodia but is implemented primarily by international organizations. With almost 80% of Cambodia’s population still living rural lifestyles, many communities are impacted by conservation initiatives developed by these organizations. In order for conservation to be relevant and considered legitimate by local communities, investigations into how communities conceive of nature conservation as well as all that surrounds it are necessary. This study aimed to expose the meaning of nature conservation to Cambodian people around a wildlife rescue centre and the capital city of Phnom Penh. For this study a qualitative epistemology was used based on a social construction of nature theory framework. It was conducted around the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre (PTWRC), a rescue centre that is located approximately 40km from Phnom Penh, Cambodia and set inside of a 2,500 hectare protected area. Fifty semi-structured interviews were conducted with four target groups representing distance and relationship to the rescue centre, as well as ten key-informants from the government, NGOs and staff of the rescue centre. Demographic information was collected in order to identify variance between target and demographic groups. Discourse analysis was conducted with the aid of NVivo 10 software to organize the themes that emerged.The main findings of this study related to constructions of PTWRC as a zoo, a resort, a place for wildlife conservation and for raising wildlife. Dynamic themes also arose around nature, including nature in the utilitarian sense with air, water, fish and trees; nature as happiness and wellbeing; nature as protection and balance; and nature as not manmade. In its wider conceptualization, nature conservation revolved around it providing “protection” of nature, and participants’ conceptions of it. Discussions of nature conservation also exposed themes around tourism and sustainability as well as revealing how it occasionally was an unfamiliar term. Overall the data showed that Cambodians possess a range of knowledge’s about nature and nature conservation. Many participants were familiar with threats to forests and wildlife and the decline of wildlife populations and forested lands. Individuals also had suggestions on how to alter these trends and expressed their opinions on the appropriate priorities for Cambodian development and conservation. Interviewees knew of drawbacks resulting both from conservation and development and held several different conceptions of nature and wildlife. These constructions varied across demographics and the target groups but there was also a significant amount of overlap leading to the overarching themes.Recommendations were made for conservation practitioners to consider how communities in their region socially construct nature conservation and in particular, nature. Additionally, this study revealed relevant environmental values connected with indivdiuals’ conceptions of nature which could be incorporated into conservation implementation.