The village of Tmatboey in the northern plains of Cambodia seemed to have little going for it. It lacked clean water; there were no real roads. The people toiled mostly at subsistence farming, barely scraping by.
The villagers didn’t realize they had a valuable asset — hiding in plain sight, so to speak: a tourist attraction that a niche group of international travelers would happily pay to see, even if it meant a stay in basic accommodations.
It’s a bird. Actually, two: the long-legged giant ibis and the white-shouldered ibis, both among the rarest in the world. In the eyes of hard-core bird-watchers, they carry near-mythical status.
And now they’re making money for Tmatboey. In 2004, the Wildlife Conservation Society, which credits itself with having saved the American bison a century ago, set up the Tmatboey Ibis Ecotourism Project to lure bird-watchers. During the most recent peak season, November 2008 to May 2009, providing services to bird-watching visitors brought in more than $12,000 all told, a fortune by local standards. About 30% went into a community fund for improving basics like education and plumbing; today, life in Tmatboey has been significantly improved by new wells, water pumps, roads and a new school.
In villages in many parts of Asia, nonprofit groups from around the world are putting into practice that time-worn proverb: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Rather than donating clothes or books, handing out mosquito nets or building schools, they’re bringing money-making enterprises to rural Asian communities. Some involve training in activities such as sewing and bamboo craft; many are tourist-related.
Among environmental groups, there has been a shift in the past decade or so toward “a more integrated view of conservation and development,” says Graham Bullock, a former ecotourism coordinator for the Nature Conservancy’s China program. For instance, says Tom Clements, a technical adviser to the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Cambodia program, the Tmatboey project works “by empowering local people to manage their own tourism enterprise, in a way that explicitly links revenue received to conservation outcomes.”
The goals of each organization vary, of course, as do the circumstances of each village. “One size definitely does not fit all,” says Mr. Bullock. But more organizations now seek “the participation and empowerment of local communities,” he adds.