You may assume that the Cardamom Mountains are the stuff of legend—the name itself conjures images of mist-shrouded mountains plucked straight out of a fantasy novel. The remote tract of rain forest is actually tucked away in southwestern Cambodia, but with one of the most alarming rates of deforestation in the world, the once-magnificent swath of forest-covered mountains is in danger of becoming nothing more than local lore.
Still, it’s a great name. “The first thing that drew me to the Cardamom Mountains was its name,” admits photographer Francesco Lastrucci. “It just sounds pretty cool.” Lastrucci’s work doesn’t focus exclusively on the environment, but he has always been interested in the people behind conservation movements. Once he began researching the lyrically named place and learned about the radical approach local conservationists are taking, he knew he had to visit.
For access and information about the mysterious area, Lastrucci turned to the Wildlife Alliance, an environmental non-governmental organization (NGO) holding down the front lines in Cambodia’s conservation fight. Since 2000, the organization has adopted a decidedly aggressive approach to protecting the environment. It focuses first on law enforcement, then on creating eco-friendly job alternatives for locals, education, reforestation, and wildlife rehabilitation and release. And the approach seems to be working.Phnom Penh, Lastrucci boarded a bus and made the five-hour journey to Chi Phat, the gateway to the Cardamoms, as he calls it. “It’s three hours with the bus, and then you take a boat two hours up the river,” he says. “It’s not bad—just five hours and then you’re in the middle of the rain forest. It’s very laid-back and idyllic.”
Instead, the Wildlife Alliance worked with locals to create alternative sources of income, from the launch of a promising eco-tourism industry to sustainable agricultural practices that have increased crop yields by 300 percent. With guesthouses, English-speaking trail guides, and activities like kayaking and mountain biking, the village and its surrounding, rarely trammeled trails are already starting to attract intrepid travelers.
“Most of the locals are very proud of what they are doing, very proud and very professional. My view is that they’re truly committed to this work because they live there. It's incredible to see a group of people fighting like this against very rich businesses with shady practices,” the photographer says. “They believe that they can, and they are. They’ve done so much so fast [in Chi Phat]. It made me think that this method works, and I hope that it can work in other parts of the world as well.”