- Researchers have launched a new book that catalogs hundreds of plant species from Cambodia’s Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary that have known medicinal uses.
- The book draws on the knowledge of Indigenous communities who have found a use for these plants over the course of generations, and whose livelihoods and cultures are closely intertwined with the fate of these species.
- The book also serves to highlight the imperiled situation of Prey Lang and its native species as deforestation by politically linked timber-trafficking networks continues to destroy vast swaths of this ostensibly protected area.
- “If the current trends of deforestation continue,” the authors warn, “an immense body of knowledge about nature will be lost, reducing the resilience and adaptability of future generations.”
PHNOM PENH — “This book won’t stop deforestation, but it can show what’s at stake, what we will lose if we lose Prey Lang,” said Nerea Turreira-Garcia, assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen, at the Nov. 14 launch of Gifts from Nature, a book she co-authored with Dimitris Argyriou, community engagement and technology specialist at Forest & Peoples Organization.
The book documents the wide range of flora found in Cambodia’s Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary and a multitude of uses that communities who live in and around the forest have found for them.
Five years of fieldwork and 374 plant species later, what began in 2014 finally blossomed into fruition in 2023 at the Preak Leap National Institute of Agriculture. Gifts from Nature aims to make accessible in both Khmer and English the findings from Indigenous-led research into the embattled Prey Lang, mainland Southeast Asia’s largest lowland evergreen rainforest.
“Lowland forests, such as Prey Lang, are at higher risk of deforestation than mountain forests as they are more accessible to loggers and their trucks,” Turreira-Garcia said. “The importance of Prey Lang lies in its great diversity of forest types and plant species, many of which are endemic to the central plains of Cambodia, meaning they can be found nowhere else, rendering Prey Lang a critical ecosystem.”
This ecosystem in particular has been the target of illegal loggers for years. Nearly 90,000 hectares (222,000 acres) of forest were lost between 2002 and 2022, according to Global Forest Watch data, with more than half of that — 48,740 hectares (120,440 acres) — lost since 2018, presenting a worrying trend of unabated destruction in Prey Lang.
The roughly 490,000-hectare (1.21-million-acre) protected area has been one of the most hotly contested forests in Cambodia, with the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) having mounted a fierce defense against the politically connected timber-trafficking networks that plunder the forest’s valuable trees. This, in turn, led the government to crackdown on the PLCN, outlawing the grassroots organization and banning it from patrolling the forests to protect the natural resources that its members depend on. There are an estimated 250,000 Indigenous Kuy people who live in and around Prey Lang, as well as a number of ethnically Khmer communities.
It was from these communities that Turreira-Garcia and Argyriou found 20 experts, a mix of Kuy and Khmer residents of the four provinces that Prey Lang straddles, to help document and preserve their Indigenous knowledge of and uses for the forest’s bountiful flora.
Highlighting the potential medicinal and cultural value of Prey Lang
“In the original study, a total of 630 uses were recorded for the 374 plants and each plant had on average two uses, although many plants had more,” said Argyriou, who added that of the 374 plants, only 279 could be identified to the species level and so Gifts from Nature only documents those for which complete information could be provided. Prey Lang’s inhabitants have found culinary, medicinal and ritual uses for these 279 species, as well as sustainable construction practices.
Of the 279 that Turreira-Garcia and Argyriou were able to fully document, just 94 were listed by the IUCN, out of which 20 are critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable or near threatened. The remaining 185 species remain unlisted by the IUCN, meaning they haven’t been assessed and that there’s likely not enough data to classify their abundance or uses.
More than 1,000 samples were sent to two botanists who helped with the verification of information provided by local experts and the indexing of species. The book builds on a 2017 study published by the authors, who noted that the translations from Kuy to Khmer and then to English took a considerable amount of time.
Turreira-Garcia said that while many books have been written on war, poverty and politics in Cambodia, little has been written of the country’s natural resources or those who depend on them, and fewer still draw so heavily on local knowledge.
“The researchers came to our village and asked about these plants,” Hean Youn, a member of the PLCN who worked with the researchers, said at the book launch. “We know how different flora can be used to treat various illnesses and ailments, we know this from our ancestors and we’re very happy to share this knowledge and our stories. We want them to be heard so that more people will join in the protection of the natural resources that are so important to us.”
Youn detailed how his community lives alongside Prey Lang and is deeply dependent on the forest for a wide range of naturally occurring products.
“We have to teach others how to use these traditional medicines, but we must learn from our elders first,” he added.
In 2012, a study found that as much as 50% of the drugs approved since the 1980s were directly or indirectly created from natural products, while 11% of the 252 drugs listed as essential medicines by the World Health Organization at the time were exclusively derived from flowering plants. Turreira-Garcia and Argyriou warned that Prey Lang may house important natural ingredients for future medicines, but the rate of forest loss may mean new scientific discoveries may never come to light.
“Traditional plant knowledge is dynamic,” Turreira-Garcia said. “New plant uses will emerge from new trial-and-error attempts or from interpersonal and intercultural encounters, while some will be lost.”
Cambodian forest loss akin to ‘burning of a library’
This warning was underscored by Von Monin, associate professor at the Preak Leap National Institute of Agriculture and an adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. He noted that across Cambodia, there are as many as 8,000 plant species, with each native tree in the country bearing an indirect value of $3,700 per tree if each of its parts are used to their full potential.
But the diversity and volume of species found in Cambodia is shrinking along with its forest cover, Monin said. He cited official statistics showing that forests covered more than 13 million hectares (32 million acres) of Cambodia before 1970, equivalent to more than 73% of the country’s land mass, but that this fell to 10 million hectares (25 million acres) by 1990 and then 8.7 million hectares (21 million acres) by 2016, leaving just 48% of the country forested.
Only 15.7% of Cambodia’s remaining forests were found to be dense, evergreen, primary forest by 2016, compared with 29.9% in studies conducted prior to 1970, according to Monin.
Much of these losses stem from the privatization of forested land, ostensibly under the guise of development via economic land concessions (ELCs), although few benefits have been shared beyond the networks of patronage that were awarded much of the country’s best forests.
“During our fieldwork, we noticed that in villages near ELCs, people had worse living standards compared to the villages that were closer to Prey Lang,” Argyriou said. “The forest brings abundance, and the companies bring dependency on the capitalist system.”
Gifts from Nature is the first attempt to document a majority of the flora that exist within Prey Lang and the reliance that largely Indigenous communities have on the forest as a direct result. But the knowledge it compiles is, like the forest, at risk of being irrevocably lost.
“The book shows that it is very relevant to use participatory methods to bring in the voice of local populations and Indigenous peoples in forest conservation and documentation of plant uses,” Turreira-Garcia said, noting how much of the ecological knowledge of these communities remains in the hands of the elders, who are rarely consulted in rural development plans.
“During the last five years, two out of our 20 key informants have died,” she added. “More than half of them are above the age of 65, so the time to act is now. We can compare the death of an elder with the burning of a library about natural history — if younger generations do not learn from their elders, important environmental knowledge will be lost.”
Deforestation driving Indigenous communities to destitution
As miners, loggers, concessionaires and smallholder farmers each leave their own indelible mark on Prey Lang by clearing the forest for their own ends, the impact is felt most keenly by the Indigenous communities, Argyriou said.
“The loss of Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary would be disastrous at many interlinked levels,” he said, noting that selective logging and clear-cutting for plantations is bringing about the extinction of tree species such as Dalbergia cochinchinensis (locally known as krornhong), Dalbergia oliveri (neanghoun), and Cinnamomum cambodianum (tepproo).
C. cambodianum is a highly valued tree used by local communities for construction, in food, for the treatment of post-partum pain and joint pains, and to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Both Turreira-Garcia and Argyriou cautioned that the medicinal uses listed in Gifts from Nature aren’t lab-tested and that the information presented shouldn’t be considered a substitute for professional medical advice.
“As the scientific name Cinnamomum cambodianum suggests, the tree is endemic to Cambodia and is critically endangered. Hence, if it is lost in Prey Lang and other Cambodian forests, it will disappear from Earth,” Argyriou said. “Other threatened species include trees that belong to the Dipterocarp family. Locals use these trees to tap resin, which is often the only source of income for the family. Without the resin trees, already vulnerable families could end up in more extreme forms of poverty.”
These trees are often targeted by logging syndicates, robbing communities of a vital source of income.
The loss of access to medicine, food, firewood, timber and livelihoods sourced from the forest is coupled with the spiritual attachment that both Kuy and Khmer communities have to the forest and the biodiversity it holds.
This, Argyriou said, means that destroying the forest is tantamount to killing important aspects of local culture, but it also robs these communities of the ability to be self-sufficient.
“If the current trends of deforestation continue, local populations will have to drastically change their way of life that brings them away from their culture,” he said, noting that having to purchase what they can currently find for free will render many more vulnerable and poorer. “An immense body of knowledge about nature will be lost, reducing the resilience and adaptability of future generations.”
Turreira-García, N., Argyriou, D., Chhang, P., Srisanga, P., & Theilade, I. (2017). Ethnobotanical knowledge of the Kuy and Khmer people in Prey Lang, Cambodia. Cambodian Journal of Natural History, 1, 76-101. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318420425_Ethnobotanical_knowledge_of_the_Kuy_and_Khmer_people_in_Prey_Lang_Cambodia
Veeresham, C. (2012). Natural products derived from plants as a source of drugs. Journal of Advanced Pharmaceutical Technology and Research, 3(4), 200-201. Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/openview/847d0af879f0493c97e3e4c4ea5da1c6/1
Banner image: Turreira-Garcia and Argyriou worked closely with Prey Lang’s Indigenous communities to produce Gifts from Nature. Image by Nerea Turreira-Garcia and Dimitris Argyriou.