Every day at 5:30 a.m., Yang Phorn and some of his neighbors from a village west of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh climb on motorbikes to go honeybee hunting in a forest far from home.
Before the 47-year-old and the others set out, they prepare bags of rice and other food and tie them to their motorbikes — enough provisions to keep them nourished for a long ride, followed by a trek deep into the forest of next-door Koh Kong province to hunt for honey-filled hives until 5 p.m. when they return home.
As he collected honeycombs full of beeswax in his baskets, Phorn said many families from Ampe Phnom, a poor village in Kampong Speu province, have hunted for bees for generations because it does not require any capital investment.
But bee hunting is hit or miss. Sometimes the group finds five or six huge honeycombs full of bees; other times they return home empty-handed, he said.
Those who come across large honeycombs with three to four liters of honey can expect to sell each liter for about 100,000 riels (U.S. $20) — a significant sum in the underdeveloped Southeast Asian nation where the annual per capita income was less than U.S. $1,650 in 2019.
The price of the honey they sell is not high, Phorn said, compared to the physically exhausting efforts to get to the honeycombs — miles-long treks into heavily wooded forests and perilous climbs up tall trees.
“It is extremely difficult,” he said.
The money the villagers earn from bee hunting is vital for their survival in Cambodia, a nation of 16.25 million people, where most of the 80 percent of people who live in rural areas depend on agriculture, fisheries, and forestry for their livelihoods.
In the past, Cambodia’s wild honey was considered the best in Southeast Asia, thanks to its tropical climate, range of floral nectars, and the productive and huge combs of the giant Asian honeybee (Apis dorsata). Honey and beeswax remain valuable ingredients in various medicines and condiments.
But lately, the livelihoods of Phorn and his fellow villagers have been thrown into jeopardy as the clear-cutting of forests for commercial farming and illegal logging destroys the bees’ habitat.
Cambodia’s rate of deforestation is among the world’s fastest, with a survey published in June by U.S. and EU monitors showing that a major national forest lost more than one football pitch (1.76 acres) of woodlands to illegal logging every hour of 2019.
The destruction of the forests means that bee hunters must travel farther from their homes and deeper into vanishing woods to find hives.
“It is so difficult to find [bees] now because there are no more forests,” Phorn told RFA’s Khmer Service. “We have to go deep into the jungle, like inside an inundated forest.”
In the past, when nearby forests were dense with trees and other foliage, bee hunting was easy because the insects built their hives near foot trails, he said.
Phorn’s colleague, Khin Vannak, who has been hunting bees since he was a child, said the destruction of trees means that bees are now constantly on the move trying to find new places to build hives.
In the 1990s when the local forest was untouched by logging, Vannak did not need to go far from home to collect honeycombs, he said. But today, he must travel 80-100 kilometers (50-62 miles) to Koh Kong province to find new beehives.
“Bee hunting is extremely difficult nowadays,” Vannak said. “It’s a struggle to trek through the jungle.”
Other bee hunters say they travel even farther to collect bees and their honey.
Bun Sophat, 52, who has hunted bees since 1982, said he travels almost everywhere in Cambodia to capture the insects and their honeycombs to sell at market.
He, too, fears that quickly disappearing forests will lead to a loss of livelihood, and that he won’t be able to support his family.
“So, the clock is ticking, and we are just running out of time to find beehives,” he told RFA. “The beehives are being depleted. What can we do if the country is developed like this?”
Protection versus corruption
Now that some local forested areas have receded all the way to mountains and valleys, Phorn fears that he will lose his business and source of income in the near future due to wide-scale deforestation.
A dearth of trees in a once abundant forest can deprive rural Cambodians of income, food, and materials needed for shelter and fuel.
Phorn decries deforestation by illegal loggers, as well as investors and powerful people from inside Cambodia and neighboring countries who cut down trees after they acquire economic land concessions from the government to set up rubber plantations.
Commodity production and illegal timber excavation continue to eat away at forests in Cambodia, which has lost about 24 percent of its tree cover since 2001, according to Global Forest, an online platform for monitoring the world’s forests.
Though Phorn and his fellow villagers from Sopor Tep commune in Chbar Mon municipality worry about their livelihoods going up in smoke in the near future, government officials say that forest rangers have made great strides in protecting the country’s forests.
Ministry of Environment spokesman Neth Pheaktra said that ministry officials, local environmental authorities, and the 1,200 rangers stationed n the country’s 69 protected natural areas totaling 7.3 million hectares (18 million acres) have stepped up efforts to protect Cambodia’s natural resources and manage and preserve its remaining biodiversity.
The ministry has established a policy to improve the livelihoods of those in rural communities by trying to replace traditional logging and hunting activities with ecotourism development to curb forest crimes, he said.
Environmental officials at the local level also have increased security and provided training to people living rural and forested areas and to bee hunters to help prevent agricultural fires from getting out of hand during droughts as they did in parts of Southeast Asia in 2019, Neth Pheaktra said.
But one environmental activist said local authorities in Cambodia often look the other way when forest crimes take place in the highly corrupt country.
“Environment Ministry officials should recognize that wherever its officers are deployed, forest offenses occur,” said Heng Sros, a forest activist in northeastern Cambodia’s Stung Treng province.
“These officers are not protecting the forest, but are guarding forest crimes for the offenders,” he said.
In previous RFA reports on endangered forests in Cambodia, numerous villagers in several provinces have said illegal logging on state and communal land was flourishing under the protection of local authorities and powerful commercial interests.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.