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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Northern cultures encounter the winds of change

Northern cultures encounter the winds of change

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

life.

"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

indigenous knowledge."

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