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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Hilltribe problems to be aired in regional seminar

Hilltribe problems to be aired in regional seminar

C AMBODIAN government officials and NGOs in Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri and Stung

Treng will attend a two-day seminar in Phnom Penh on "Ethnic Communities and

Sustainable Development of Northeast Cambodia" on Aug 29 and 30.


from Laos, Vietnam and Thailand will share their work on hilltribes in upland

areas with the hope that Cambodia can learn from its neighbors' successes and

failures. NGO workers say that as tourism and development projects hit the

northeast, hilltribe communities may be forced to move or radically adapt their

traditional cultures.

"With exposure to other models of development with

indigenous groups, we are hoping that government officials will look for more

equitable and sustainable development models which benefit all the region's

inhabitants," says seminar coordinator Ken Riebe.

The Ethnic Communities

Seminar will include working sessions on sustainable development, tourism and

cultural identity, and traditional land rights. Land title is especially

difficult for hilltribes to establish since most practice swidden

("slash-and-burn") agriculture, rotating their farming plots every couple of


"Land disputes are a big problem in Ratanakiri," says Choung

Pheav, president of the provincial court, who is of the Kreung minority. "Big

companies are coming with proposals and plans. If they receive the authorization

from the province they will need to chase the people away. The people are afraid

to oppose these plans. When they see the official red seal on the contracts they

get up and move."

Few of the hilltribes - estimated to constitute 63

percent of Ratanakiri's population - are fluent in Khmer or accustomed to

asserting their rights. One exception occurred in March this year, when a dozen

Jarai families made the long trek from O Ya Dev district in eastern Ratanakiri

to file a complaint in the provincial town with the human rights organization

Adhoc. The families charged that they were being pressured to move by a

Malaysian company developing a large palm oil plantation (slated for 100,000

hectares or 10 percent of the province).

Seminar participants will look

at examples from Vietnam, where the Center for Natural Resources Management and

Environment Studies (CRES) in Hanoi has four projects in sustainable highland

agriculture in the mountainous provinces near the Chinese border.


policy makers want to stop swidden agriculture because it degrades the upland

environment," say Dr. Le Truong Cuc, deputy of CRES. "But that's impossible,

it's their culture. So we have to see how to improve shifting cultivation to

increase production, how to improve the soil so there's more crop


"It's their tradition to protect the forest," adds Cuc. "Even if

they cut [a lot], they keep a portion of the forest around their farm. It's a

sacred area, a 'holy hill.' They don't need local law to make them do this -

it's by their tradition."

The seminar will also focus on case studies

from Thailand, which has grappled with the effects of tourism and development on

hilltribes for more than a decade.

"While eco-tourism sounds

'sustainable' one of its most serious impacts is the usurpation of virgin

territories, such as pristine forests and uninhabited islands which are then

packaged as green products for the eco-tourists," writes Chayant Pholpoke, one

of the seminar presenters, in an article in Thailand Environment Institute's

Quarterly Journal. As a result eco-tourism in Thailand is increasingly

attempting to take over the country's national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and

other protected areas.

"In these 'green' areas however, there are already

people who are living in or near these sites, or are making a living from them.

They are therefore forced to take up eco-tourism in one way or another ... [they

have] little bargaining power because of their already precarious existences.

Few have rights of citizenship and of land ownership, and are then also forced

to 'adopt' eco-tourism which itself has an uncertain future."


stories from Thailand will also be explored by seminar participants. Samer

Limchoowong of the Thai government-funded Sam Meung Highand Development Project

will talk about the importance of actively involving hilltribe communities in

forest management.

Also speaking will be Dr. Somsak Sukwong from

Kasetsart University in Bangkok. "We've learned many painful lessons the last

few years," says Sukwong. "Hilltribe people are evicted out of original places,

their community collapses. Some go to the cities and become prostitutes, or even

commit suicide."

Cambodian government leaders, including First Prime

Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Second Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen have

agreed to make statements during the seminar, which will be held at the

Government Palace near Wat Phnom.



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