Sustainable wood carving at the Center of the Dove, Cambodia

Sustainable wood carving at the Center of the Dove, Cambodia

Chum Som On (in wheelchair) with one of the young trainees at Banteay Prieb (Photo: P Walpole)

Pedro Walpole SJ

For the past 15 years, Chum Som On has been working in Banteay Prieb (Center of the Dove), a training facility administered by Jesuits for people with disabilities from all around the country and located outside Phnom Penh in Cambodia.

Som On started the carving program of Banteay Prieb, which now offers a two-year sculpture course in wood, and now includes stone. They produce many kinds of sculptures, from small key chains to large religious statues for the different church parishes.

The wood is very important to Som On. He is used to working with the red and fine-grained wood of thnung (Pterocarpus pedatus) and also the lighter colour but solid woods of neang nuan or Cambodian rosewood (Dalbergia bariensis) and dai khla (Gardenia ankorensis). The hardness of these forest trees is valued, as it makes for a better carving.

However, these forest species are becoming more and more difficult to find, given the over exploitation and extensive cutting and clearing in Cambodia. Som On has since thought of establishing a nursery of these forest species but he can no longer even source many of the seeds he needs. There are even more difficult trees to find, angkanh (Cassia siamea), trayocung (Diospyros helferi), kroeul (Melanorrhea laccifera), and many others.

As an alternative, he is now focusing on the use of another set of trees including beng (Afzelia xylocarpa), koki (Hopea spp), kranhung (Dalbergia cochinchinensis), sralao (Lagerstroemia sp.), and even acacia (Acacia auriculiformis) that originally came from Papua New Guinea and North Australia. It does not actually have leaves but leaf stalks that act as leaves and is very good on poor and arid soils. All these species are becoming more important to him because the seeds are easy to find, the woods are good and water resistant.

Som On realises that the hardwoods are getting short in supply so he plans to continue to gather the seeds and get everyone he knows to plant them, especially in the Jesuit institutions in Cambodia, so he would have a supply of wood for his students in the future.

To date, he has already started a small nursery and planted over 100 seedlings that are now two meters high. He wants the youth to see some of these trees at their full height so that they really know what their forests are like.

But what of these real forest species and how will the next generation appreciate them?

While meeting with Ms Ming Heum in the nursery of the Department of Forestry in Battambang, thousands of healthy seedlings were seen available. Ming Heum shares about the ways of hope for their forests as she is connected with many communities living by the forest who collect seeds for her. Many of the species we talked of are gathered for government programs. Yet, she says, no one has shown interest in the Diospyros species and other species that would be good to bring into public view. The years ahead are a challenge but people are looking for ways and planting the seeds.


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