There was an old sign adorning the common area that read “Welcome to the middle of somewhere” It was its cleverness that got my attention, but it was a deeper realization what stayed with me. It stroked me that the 7-hour ride from Phnom Penh to Sen Monorom, through an arid landscape and scattered villages, had left me with the uncritical impression of being in the middle of nowhere. As if such a thing was possible in our endlessly interweaved world. I later learned that “Middle of Somewhere” was the name Jack Highwood gave his pub when he first settled in Mondulkiri, Cambodia in 2005. From there, he launched his project to help improve the health and life conditions of the captive elephants in the area. Probably, it was the same sensibility that got him to choose that name, what also got him to understand the deep-rooted interdependence between the wellbeing of the elephants, their habitat and that of the local communities, realizing that none of them was isolated, but instead in the middle of an ecosystem of relations. The result after years of work: The Elephant Valley Project (EVP), an eco-touristic initiative in whose resting area I encountered the sign during my visit.
Up a hill, the entrance of EVP allows for a panoramic view of its territory: 1500 hectares of forest where 10 elephants roam in herds of 2 or 3 individuals, along with their mahouts. Each of the elephants here has a story and a scar to tell it. Most of them were overworked elephants that are now ‘retired’. Since its inception, the objective of EVP’s umbrella NGO E.L.I.E (Elephant Livelihood Initiative Environment) was to improve the health and wellbeing of captive elephants in Mondulkiri. They gave the owners an economic compensation in exchange for letting the elephants rest, and offered medical attention for the animals. Today’s territory of EVP is a step forward as it functions as that ‘retirement home’ for the elephants, where they receive treatment if required, and mainly where they can live their last years in conditions that are as close as possible to their wild life. Most of the times, EVP encourages proprietors to maintain the ownership of their elephants and pays them a monthly fee for keeping them at their land. However, some of the elephants have more extreme stories of cruelty, from which EVP rescued them. With characters like Sambo, who used to be ridden on hot asphalt in the city by tourists, the process of reintegration to the forest is slower and the treatment to its wounds may be permanent. No matter their origins though, when they reach EVP, the elephants arrive in a space where their welfare is the main priority.
Yet this welfare involves going well beyond the elephants. Pachyderms are only one of the elements in EVP’s multidimensional approach. The forest, home for elephants, people and other myriad of beings, has been in recent history under constant threat in this area. EVP borders Seima Protection Forest, once known as the Serengeti of Indochina due to the massive migrations it sustained. Many of these herds fell victims to the carpet bombing done by the U.S during the American War. But more recently, it is poaching, logging and land-grabs for industry what has put the most pressure on the forests of Mondulkiri. EVP is clear about the fact that caring for the forest is as important as caring for the elephants themselves. But it was through their constant contact with the communities that they could identify an unexpected variable: they found out that the main reason why locals sold away their forested lands was to cover for medical expenses. This allowed them to draw the connecting line between the basic rights of indigenous communities and forest preservation. Therefore, E.L.I.E set up a community programme to alleviate medical and educational expenses among the local families. In the words of Chris Iverson, current manager at EVP, they realized that by taking the pressure off the families, they could take the pressure off the forest.
True sustainability of the forest, though, depends on long-term engagement of the communities in its caring. So EVP didn’t stop at charity: they set about the grand feat to fight along the Bunong communities to claim their land rights. Preserving the indigenous people’s way of life, for which the forest is source of resources and spirituality, became one of the pillars of the organization. Nine years and $150 000 later, native people could legally claim their territory. And today, 1000 of the hectares that EVP occupies is rented directly from the 78 families that own and administer them. The other 500 hectares correspond to protected area, in which EVP finances the rangers that look after it. Thus, it has been in EVP’s highest interest to keep the people attached to the land. Their medical care programme, their staff mainly composed by locals, their local board, their participation in indigenous traditions and ceremonies, and more than 10 years of constant work in the community has kept EVP connected to the local needs; allowing them to understand and adapt to the demands of the social and natural ecosystem.
In this greater scheme, tourism is an enabler rather than an end to itself. Around 80% of EVP’s financing is achieved through touristic visits, which are pricey, restricted and not for the faint-hearted. The time at EVP is split between long treks to meet the elephants and volunteering time for all sort of tasks like finding seeds for the tree nursery, cleaning paths, collecting dung, gardening and even construction. During the treks, there is a strict do not disturb policy, which means no riding, no bathing and no touching the elephants, simply observing from a distance, prioritizing elephants’ needs over touristic fantasies. Tourism is also EVP’s opportunity for advocacy and education, as they raise awareness among visitors about the many cruelties that exist in the elephant tourism industry. Visits are important to EVP in as much as they provide the fuel to keep the place running, but are definitely not their raison d’être, just another thread in their intricate web.
After understanding EVP’s model, it is no surprise that the middle of somewhere sign carried a deeper meaning. Ecologically, socially and economically speaking, we are always tangled in a series of relationships and situated in the middle of a habitat that sustains local life. As Donna Haraway states, nothing comes without its world. The elephants that so easily captivate us are not the exception. EVP has had to empirically situate itself in their realm to tangle and disentangle the many factors that support wellbeing across species. Caring for elephants has implied caring beyond them.
On our final day we encountered the elephants one last time at the river, where they were drinking and crossing along with their mahouts. My decision to visit EVP came mainly from a long-time dream to see elephants up close, and the promise to do so in an undisturbed environment for the animals further excited me. Yet, at the time of our last encounter with the elephants, after the experience and the interviews, I was just as excited and marvelled at the invisible threads that allowed them to roam freely in this sanctuary. I could recognize that the care they got from the mahouts, the running stream from where they drank, their spiritual and social connection to the Bunongs, the dense rainforest that held it all together and the sensitive work of the organization were all knots interweaving to sustain the marvellous existence of the elephants. I found myself, significantly, in the middle of somewhere.