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Song Saa: Eco-Paradise Meets Conservation & Social Responsibility in Cambodia

The Boat of Hope
The Boat of Hope
Deborah Bassett

As originally published in National Geographic "Ocean Views" Blog, reposted with permission.

When Australians Rory and Melita Hunter first travelled to Cambodia's remote southwest Koh Rong Archipelago in 2005, they embarked upon the journey of a lifetime. Surrounded by the clear turquoise waters of The Gulf of Thailand, the couple happened upon a set of twin islands long known affectionately to locals as Song Saa, the Kmer word for 'sweethearts'. They were immediately captivated by the beauty of the natural landscape as well as the charm of the local communities they encountered along the way. However, they were equally struck by the devastating effects of human impacts on the once pristine eco-system: destructive fishing practices threatened the coral reefs, plastic pollution littered the blanket of white sand beaches, and the lack of waste management system left the entire region at risk for environmental disaster.

With an ambitious long term vision of sustainability in mind and the sassy tagline, "Luxury that Treads Lightly", The Hunters seized an opportunity to create Cambodia’s first private island luxury resort which they appropriately named "Song Saa". Along with it came the establishment of the Kingdom’s first marine protected reserve in 2006 to preserve coral reefs around the islands of Koh Bong and Koh Ouen and put an end to bottom trawling and dynamite fishing in the area. Additionally the team worked with the local community to put in place a patrol, education and awareness program. The reserve quickly became a hub for marine research, including a study that documented the successful recovery of fish stocks and corals within the protected area as compared to the situation outside of the protected area.

But their pioneer conservation efforts didn't stop there. The Song Saa Foundation was established to carry out numerous social, health and environmental projects throughout the Koh Rong Archipelago, including the critical implementation of a solid waste management system in the largest settlement, Prek Svay. Each day a community team removes solid waste from the public areas of the village, including plastics, cans and papers. The materials are then sorted into recyclables, compostables and those that must be transported to the mainland for disposal, providing both an income source for local villagers and combatting potential health and hygiene threats.

When I first arrived to Song Saa early in April 2014 I was convinced that at any moment Tatoo and Mr. Rourke would be greeting me with a Mai Tai in hand as the lush rainforest backdrop, crystal seascape and superb eco-savvy design fell nothing short of personal fantasy. I was met by Song Saa Foundation Executive Director, Dr. Wayne McCallum, a bit of a Ricardo Montavan in his own right and his sidekick, Director of Conservation, Barnaby Olson who swiftly whisked me away to one of the local community project sites aboard the "Boat of Hope". Just one of the many initiatives being carried out by the Song Saa Foundation, the mission of the Boat of Hope is to spread the message of sustainability through a hands on approach across the Archipelago while the development of a unique climate change program serves as a catalyst for positive environmental education and practices.

Providing better health care for communities that are isolated from medical care is one aspect of the social responsibility being carried out by the Boat of Hope. To date, the project has successfully delivered critically needed vitamins and medical services, including dental clinics, to five adjacent communities via a partnership with International Medical Relief (IMR), an effort that has totaled over 1.2 million dollars of donated resources and services. I was fortunate to experience the Boat of Hope in action, meeting with enthused locals and witnessing the projects success first hand. Village members, both young and old, eagerly gathered to listen to the community health workshop and receive vital supplements that help combat some of the estimated 75% malnutrition rates that plague the region.

According to MaCallum:

"Our approach draws on the ridge to reef concept, which acknowledges that what happens on the top of a hill will affect the coral reefs far below. Deforestation and the downstream impacts of eroded top-soil on coral reefs is a good example of this relationship. We also appreciate that the environment cannot be separated from the social.Communities struggling with health and well being will resort to practices that harm the environment and make their situation even worse and so on as part of a vicious circle. Only by taking an integrated approach and dealing with both can we hope to truly promote sustainability in the Koh Rong Archipelago."

The following morning, Barnaby and I set off on a reef check mission around the local reserve. Having dived many grim areas of the Pacific Rim, I was thrilled to see the abundance of coral and fish life and the lack of plastic debris. Barnaby explained that today a full no-take zone extends 200 meters around the entire Song Saa islands and the reserve has expanded to cover an area10x larger than the original. The team is also testing out the implementation of artificial reef systems as an option to rehabilitate damaged coral systems as well as mangrove restoration in the adjacent villages. With hawksbill and green sea turtles nesting grounds also scattered throughout the archipelago, the establishment of a community intern program that will train locals to become wardens to protect the turtle populations is currently in the works.

During my stay at Song Saa I also had the opportunity to travel with Community Liaison Officer, Saran who lives in the local village and carries out his work at The Song Saa Sustainability Center, an educational facility and a central hub where villagers, researchers and staff can connect and share knowledge on conservation topics as well as host related eco-workshops. The Community garden allow villagers the opportunity to learn about organic gardening and agriculture, plant propagation, recycling and composting. He also facilitates a marine conservation program in unison with the local primary school that allows village children the opportunity to explore the underwater reef habitat, followed by lessons and films on biodiversity in the region.

After 4 blissful days spent at my stunning ocean side villa, the seaside spa and activities such as stand up paddle boarding and underwater meditation, it became evident to me that nothing had been left to chance at Song Saa. There was a mindfulness in the air that hinted each stone laid was done so with a positive intention in mind.

Likewise, each morsel of food served has been carefully sourced through local farmers in order to reduce the ecological footprint and and improve the livelihood of local communities, while a sophisticated waste water management system ensured a zero run off policy for the resort. The ethical and sustainable approach to development at Song Saa proves that multiple benefits can be achieved for both people and the natural environment.

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