That Cambodia is indeed a country enriched with amazing nature and some unusually incredible people, was something I personally experienced last weekend. Alongside 13 members of the Interfaith Initiative for Peace in Cambodia, I participated in a ceremonial celebration of the UN International Day of Peace on 21st of September in southern Cambodia, in Kampot Province. The purpose of the trip was to plant exactly 510 mangrove trees, a unique tree type with an exceptional ability to increase biodiversity in swamps and tidal areas, but let us go into detail with this later.
The trip to Kampot started with probably the most multi-religious bus ride I will ever be a part of. In the bus, we were gathered five Buddhists, three Muslims, two Christians, two monks and an atheist. A group-composition, which probably in most contexts would form the basis of some discussions about religion and faith. However, not this time, although the bus ride to Kampot was extended by two hours due to rush hour traffic, the mood in the bus was high, where people both sang along to the local radio station and told jokes and funny stories.
After arriving at Mangrove Lodge in Kampot, a guesthouse where we were going to spend the night from Friday to Saturday, we were welcomed by some locals from the village who had prepared a sumptuous serving of seafood, all freshly caught from the river. After finishing our dinner, all participants gathered around a large table, where we were each given a candle and tasked to tell what the light meant to us and tell what our wishes were for the future. And let it be said right away; this was probably not something that I was very good at. At least I personally found the stories of the other members of group way more interesting than my own, though it seemed obvious that some of the stories being told by the other members of the group, in many ways was characterized by Cambodia’s gloomy past.
The following day it was time to plant the mangrove trees in the Thailand Gulf. It was a wonderful morning, the sun was shining from a cloudless sky, and for a short moment of time, my surroundings made me feel like an unusually privileged young man. At least I can say, that I have probably never enjoyed my morning coffee in a more beautiful scenery. After a short breakfast, which in Cambodian fashion consisted of a bowl of rice mixed with some of the fish from the evening before, we jumped into our minibus and started our journey to Trapang Ropov Fishery Community, located about seven kilometres outside Kampot. This was where the actual tree planting was going to take place.
After a short drive, we arrived at our destination and were greeted with smiles and open arms by the local villagers. After a bunch of hugs and handshakes, we were all in the boats on the on our way to the tree planting spot. And now let’s do a slightly more technical explanation of what a mangrove tree really is, and why they are so important. Mangrove tree, among other things, help maintain a healthy aquatic environment by filtering contaminants from the water. Mangrove trees are also essential to the communities that are highly dependent on especially fisheries. The trees maintain a rich ecosystem where both microorganisms, fish and shellfish thrive very well as there is a well-functioning food chain in these areas. Unfortunately, it is estimated that about 100,000 hectares of mangrove forests disappear every year. This is among other things a major problem for communities like the Trapang Ropov Fishery Community, whose living conditions are defined by the amount of fish caught. Fishes primarily means food on the table, but in addition, the sale of fish is also the primary and sometimes the only source of income for the many Cambodians living along the coasts.
After half an hour of sailing we found ourselves in the middle of the ocean, where the trees were to be planted. But just as we got out of the boats the sky opened out of the blue and the rain started pouring down on us. For a short period of time I just thought to myself, “Oh no I did not bring any extra clothes”, but as I saw the first people starting to dance a rain-dance and a water war broke out between some of the Muslim members of the group, I didn’t care to much about my lack of clothes anymore. Even though the rain continued for several minutes, the smiles could not be wiped of our faces, and it was as if the whole trip just culminated right there. It was great to see the joy and enthusiasm on everyone’s faces, especially the locals. It was an amazing experience, and just thinking about it makes me very proud. It was great to be part of something that makes so much sense.
After an hour or so at sea, the tree was planted. Hereafter we all took a minute to just stand and watch the beautiful view of the 510 new trees, which in the future will help ensuring a sustainable future for both wildlife and humans for many years to come.