Winning numerous sustainability awards, Song Saa in Cambodia is exemplar of how to create a truly sustainable island resort in South East Asia.
We recently spoke with Wayne McCallum and Ben Thorne from the Song Saa Foundation to find out how they have done it...
When did the island's green initiatives start?
At the heart of our story stand Song Saa’s visionary owners Rory and Melita Hunter. When they first journeyed to the Koh Rong archipelago in 2005, they took inspiration from the beauty of the islands and the smiles and energy of the people. In 2008, when they starting building Song Saa Private Island, Cambodia’s first luxury coastal resort in the Archipelago, underpinning the development of the resort was a commitment to sustainability. Rory and Melita recognised a broad opportunity to create something that had philanthropic components at its core. Quickly, they established the country’s first government recognised marine reserve (the Song Saa Marine Reserve) and a community-sustained solid waste management centre; projects that have been followed by other new and creative initiatives. Now, the Song Saa Foundation  (launched in September 2013) represents a culmination of eight years’ work and commitment to the Archipelago.
Why did the owners choose to go down the sustainable route?
Being the first people to develop a privately owned island in the Koh Rong Archipelago comes with a tremendous sense of responsibility to ensure that whatever Rory and Melita did had a lasting, positive impact on the surrounding environment and gave opportunities and a future to the local community. Song Saa aims to set a benchmark for others, by showing that property development, environmental conservation and community engagement are not mutually exclusive concepts. Starting with the creation of the Song Saa Marine Reserve reserve over 7 years ago, through to the implementation of an Archipelago-wide education and wellbeing ‘Boat of Hope’ initiative, the Foundation has been fortunate to have willing partners with the local community to put ambitious plans into action and deliver tangible results.
Have their been many key influencers along the way?
At the Foundation we work closely with a variety of groups, organisations and authorities to promote and collaborate on our vision of a sustainable future for the Koh Rong archipelago. These include community fishery committees who oversee the management and governance of designated village fishing areas; not-for-profit organisations including the globally acclaimed conservation body, Fauna & Flora International; the Royal Government of Cambodia’s Fisheries Administration; and the Ministry for the Environment. In 2013, the Song Saa Foundation was an inaugural member of the Koh Rong Archipelago NGO Forum, a working group of people and organisations working in the region. Other bodies that we work closely with include, Friends of Koh Rong, The Cambodia Navy, Coral Cay Conservation, CCS Italia, Conservation Cambodia, Prek Svay school committee, and various community-led sustainable livelihood committees (e.g. Prek Svay’s Solid Waste Management Team).
How do the island's sustainable initiatives impact guests?
We support opportunities for Song Saa Private Island guests to experience the natural and human worlds that surround the resort. In practice we go beyond ‘sustainable tourism’ by providing guests with the opportunity to actively take part in, and facilitate, community and conservation projects. This gives them first-hand knowledge that Song Saa is not only an eco-friendly resort, but is also benefitting communities and the natural environment.
In 2014 we launched our pioneering 4-day philanthropic tours, known as the Journeys of Change. Supported by the hospitality of the resort, the tours provide guests with this opportunity to get engaged in the Foundation’s projects, working alongside expert conservationists and fellow tour members to promote a sustainable future for the people and places of the Koh Rong Archipelago. In addition to the ‘in-environment’ experience gained by the guests, it is also a fantastic source of funding for the development and running of Foundation projects. Having taken a minimal fee to cover their operational overheads, the resort provides all revenue to the Foundation for guests who book onto the Journeys of Change programme.
In a community where the price of a simple school book and pen can be prohibitively expensive, our collaboration with the Pack for a Purpose initiative offers guests the chance to make a real difference to the well-being of the village’s youngsters and our Boat of Hope initiative provides guests with an opportunity to see, unmediated, where their donation is distributed within the Archipelago.
To continue to promote awareness of the island environment to guests and those in the hospitality industry we have an online newsletter, Reef Notes, which features articles on the work of the Foundation’s conservation and community projects and the amazing life that inhabits the Archipelago. A nature guidebook entitled ‘Blue’ is available for guests to read and more learning can be done at the resort’s conservation sanctuary, the ‘Discovery Centre’, which features not only a library but also exhibits community-produced artefacts.
Here are some of Song Saa's key sustainable initiatives:
- Energy & Carbon
We have anticipated that some guests to the resort will wish to offset the carbon costs of their travel to and from Cambodia. In response, the team has developed a carbon sequestration programme for guests, centred on local ‘blue carbon’ systems. Through the planting of mangroves guests can contribute to reducing the carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases produced from their journey to Song Saa. This scheme represents a regional first, where guests can compensate for their carbon costs and visit the locations where their offset support is providing protection to the environment.
In the Koh Rong Archipelago, local communities are heavily reliant on the sea for their livelihood and health, yet until the mid-2000s no system existed to ensure the conservation of these values. So Song Saa Private Island set up its Conservation and Community programme, the forerunner to the Song Saa Foundation. In 2006, we created Cambodia’s first marine reserve, which is protecting the coral reef habitats around the private islands of Koh Bong and Koh Ouen.
To ensure the reserve achieved its conservation goals, the team worked with the local community to put in place a patrol, education and awareness programme. The success of this, Cambodia’s first, marine reserve has been remarkable, with fish stocks and corals steadily recovering. The reserve has also become a hub for marine research, including a study that documented the improvements in marine life that followed the creation of the reserve and compared it to the situation outside of the protected area. In 2013 a collaborative agreement between villagers and officials saw the protected marine area increase in size - this expanded conservation area, covering an area 10x larger than the previous reserve, has set a benchmark to motivate and inspire others.
Other marine conservation activities have included the trialling of artificial reefs as a rehabilitation option for damaged coral systems. Results have revealed how a simply manufactured artificial reef can quickly become a home for a variety of fish species, attracted by the replication of their coral habitat. In October 2014 a globally critically endangered hawksbill turtle was spotted resting in the reserve, which is a fantastic indication that our conservation efforts are visibly paying dividends to the natural environment.
- Education & training
Capacity building and environmental education is at the heart of our work to ensure sustainable growth and development. With the growing number of environmental challenges facing the people of the Koh Rong archipelago, including declining natural resources, there is an urgent need to improve local understanding of the environment and the impact of human activities upon it. Nowhere is this imperative more vital than with the youth population of the region, who ultimately will have to deal with the consequences of the Archipelago’s changing environment.
For example, the Foundation’s Song Saa Sea Turtle s programme maintains and extends its efforts to improve the eco-literacy of the Koh Rong archipelago’s adolescent population. The impact is an improved understanding of the environment and environmental change amongst the adolescent population of the Archipelago.
In 2013 the Song Saa Foundation entered a 5-year collaborative partnership with the not-for-profit organisation, International Medical Relief (IMR), an American medical outreach organisation, to complete a series of health clinics across the Archipelago each September. This has proven to be the largest ever provision of health care services in the history of the Koh Rong archipelago, with attendance numbers at hosted clinics topping 1,039 patients. With an estimated island population of 2,000 people, this meant that over half of the Archipelago’s population was seen by an IMR provider! Clinics were facilitated in all of the major settlements in the Koh Rong archipelago and the treatments they received ranged from elementary care for colds and cuts through to dental extractions, deep wound treatment and women’s health clinics. One telling event was the appearance of a woman who had lost a lot of blood in childbirth at a clinic on the second day of the 2013 mission. Being immediately sent to the mainland for a blood transfusion saved her life. Since then she has advised the Foundation that she’d like her son to grow up and become a doctor so that he can aid those in need, as she was helped in her need.
In conjunction with the work done by the Prek Svay Solid Waste Management Team, we also organise regular village-wide clean up events. These are run as a part of different international clean up events such as International Coastal Clean Up Day (each September) or World Oceans Day (each June). We also hold educational events in all sectors of the community from classes within the primary school to meetings with the village Chief and his associates.
Do you have plans to expand on green initiatives in the future?
There are two expansions plans currently underway:
- Boat of Hope: Building on the work of the Song Saa Foundation, we are raising funds to transform a traditional Cambodian fishing boat into a mobile teaching and learning centre, allowing us to take its sustainability message out across the Archipelago and beyond. The boat will offer the most effective means for directing educational outreach and research across the Archipelago, whilst providing accommodation for educators and house a laboratory for the processing of water samples and other scientific information. We intend that the boat will become the hub for a climate change programme – the first of its type in the region.
- New Livelihood Options for the Villagers of Prek Svay: We seek to work with the Archipelago’s indigenous community to develop new, local businesses, which will enable the local population to live sustainably within their environment. Other communities will be able to learn from and adapt to the business models that we will provide. Our ambition will be to share all of our lessons, while we have taken care that these projects create opportunities for both men and women. The Foundation has identified leading livelihood opportunities that we wish to kick-start in order to provide opportunity for the future (such as the establishment of an Organic Farming Committee for the on-going provision of fresh vegetables to the resort).
What would be your top 3 bits of advice to hotels looking to do the same?
- Actively engage with the community before commencing a project – what do they want? What will be of most benefit to them? Provide advice, not imposing projects that ultimately they are not interested in.
- Only start a project if you have funding to make it sustainable long-term. It may do developing communities more harm than good to raise hopes and start a project only to have to scrap it a few months down the line.
- Work in collaboration with project partners and local authorities. There are very few successful initiatives that don’t actively involve more than one party. Guaranteed, there will always be another organisation that shares your vision and would be willing to support it – you just need to find them!