OCHUM, RATTANAKIRI - Everything in this village is quiet. A man repairs his fishing
net while just a few meters away an old woman cuts some bamboo sticks with a long,
old knife. Kreh village in Ochum district is one of the Kreung minority villages
only an hour away from the provincial capital Banlung.
Kreung, the dominant ethnic group in this province, live like all 20 other hill tribes,
isolated in the deep forest. The highlanders are called minorities but in Rattanakiri
they represent 85 per cent of the population. They are animist, have associated beliefs
and use semi-settled swidden agriculture techniques to grow rice. The villagers believe
different spirits inhabit the environment; the forest, earth, water, and air. In
the forest, season after season, life flows like a quiet river, punctuated by many
ceremonies, where buffalo are killed and rice wine drunk. But, according to the British
ethnologist, Joanna White, external influences are changing the flow of this peaceful
"When I finished my study [in July 1995] most of the hill tribe families were
continuing to cultivate the land to sustain a basic standard of living, retaining
their own distinctive culture. The changes they have already experienced may prove
to be very limited compared with what is yet to come." Slowly, the minorities
are losing their identity.
Recently, American missionaries visited, proselytising and developing written forms
of local dialects and languages, using them to translate Biblical texts. "Such
activities have already brought some changes and a number of villagers have already
converted to Christianity," White writes in her report "Of Spirits and
Services", edited by Health Unlimited. The anthropologist , who has worked here
for 15 months, also explained how the newly-converted villagers "not only no
longer participate in spiritual rites and communal feasts, but as a result of no
longer carrying out animal sacrifices they are more inclined to sell their livestock
in the market."
The villagers traditionally barter but the use of cash, White says, is a growing
trend. More and more villagers now earn salaries as they ease away from their past.
"I saw cases of villagers charging cash simply for the use of a flute for a
healing ceremony", she said. But in one recorded instance, the influence of
cash cut across communal sharing and cost a life. "A sick child died (after
several healing ceremonies) and I was surprised, the next day, to visit another villager
who described how her child had been sick with the same problem. This mother then
showed me the medicine she had bought from the market pharmacy to treat her child
(who had recovered). When I asked why she had not given this medicine to her neighbours,
she described how they had no money to pay for it."
Markets now sell imported noddles, cakes, bicycles, radios and tape recorders. Despite
the fact that many villagers grow tobacco, they smoke Lao tobacco and Khmer and Vietnamese
cigarettes. The youngest now prefer American brands. "Brief trends can even
be discerned... among the younger generation, whereby certain items enjoy a brief
popularity. Aspiration towards the exchange required to purchase them is a distinctly
growing trend," says White.
In 1994, the government created an inter-ministerial committee on the Highland People
Development Project. This committee is working in education, health, road construction
and agriculture. According to Seng Narong, the project's permanent secretary: "The
agriculture of highland people contributes to destroying the forest and we want to
show them ways to cultivate the land instead of moving like they are used to."
In the short term, the government plans to reduce the number of communities cultivating
upland rice and in the long term, for villagers to cultivate lowland rice. The committee
needs to develop an improved network of roads and to establish reservoirs and irrigation
systems which will support the cultivation of lowland rice all the year round."
White says: "The provincial government claims it wants to change the hill tribes'
system of agriculture without changing their culture, regarding the two as separable
entities, which is a myth!"
But Narong says it will take years before the highlanders change their way of living.
"When the government gives a buffalo to a village for working the rice fields,
the only thing they do is to kill it soon after for a ceremony."
A government tourism office was established in Banlung in 1993 and since that time
plans have been stepped up to develop a substantial tourist industry. Sok Chenda
Sophea, under secretary of state, knows that in the future, tourists will be more
and more interested by visiting the minorities. "We have to learn from our neighbours
[Vietnam and Thailand] and to avoid their mistakes." In Rattanakiri, the challenge
is how to develop without destroying.
Sok Chenda says: "This province, along with Mondlkiri, is one of the more sensitive
areas because the hill tribes live in deep forest. They are not animals that tourists
will visit like in a zoo. They live with specificities that we want them to keep.
So we need to be really careful."
This is why the Ministry of Tourism wants to develop eco-tourism. "Respect for
the local customs, respect for the environment and also the control of the architectural
development [houses built in wood instead of concrete] are essential things."
Until now, few tourists have visited the minorities. But, as the visitors arrive
with their videos and cameras, external influences enter every day into every village.
For White "it is naive to imagine that the people who have retained their traditional
lifestyles in relative isolation, founded on the basic security of an unlimited natural
environment and the indigenous expertise to survive in this environment, will be
aware of the full implications of these increasing changes. It is only when the poverty
cycle of working within a system of cash cropping or as a landless waged labour is
felt that the negative implications of such changes may be seen, and by this time
it is too late to revert. Control over resources has been lost, together with much