Members of an indigenous Phnong percussion band prepare to start off harvest celebrations
In Cambodia's northeastern provinces of Ratanakiri and Mondolkiri, the ethnic
peoples are grappling with the perennial plagues of poverty, internal migration,
land confiscation and the steady erosion of their culture from outside influences.
But unlike their counterparts in neighboring Vietnam, where frustration and resentment
over similar griefs has flared into public street demon-strations, Cambodia's indigenous
people are taking a different tack. Instead of taking to the streets, Cambodia's
indigenous people are taking their exploiters to court and supporting grassroots
initiatives to protect their land and way of life - with varying degrees of success.
Vong Sokheng, Bou Saroeun and Phelim Kyne look at how Cambodia's indigenous
peoples are facing these challenges.
On March 1, 2000, a group of ethnic indigenous tribal people crossed the border from
Vietnam into Cambodia's Mondol-kiri province seeking political asylum from the demonstrations
that hit Vietnam's Central Highlands two months ago.
Five days later, representatives of indigenous people from Cambodia's Ratanakiri
began three days of frank, face-to-face discussions with Cambodian government, human
rights and development workers to air their grievances and suggest new approaches
during a three-day workshop.
Through round table discussions, skits and impassioned speeches on the effects of
uncontrolled logging, mining and land confiscation, the indigenous representatives
presented their case and in no uncertain terms demanded action.
These two vignettes highlight the colossal divide between the attitudes and mechanisms
applied to the problems faced by indigenous ethnic groups in Vietnam and Cambodia.
While the traditional lands of Jarai, Tampeun and Kreung indigenous people straddle
the Vietnam-Cambodia border, the official approach to resolving their mutual problems
are worlds apart.
"... land ownership has increasingly been a problem [on both sides of the
border], but here in Cambodia there are integrated grassroots-based initiatives to
address them," commented a human rights worker who attended the Ratanakiri workshop.
"On the other side of the border there's no venue for expression and when the
indigenous people finally spoke after having their frustrations bottled up for years,
the military came in."
While conceding that the March 23 ruling by the Ratanakiri Provincial Court that
effectively allowed a senior military official to cheat more than 900 Jarai and Tampeun
people of 1,200 hectares of land in return for a bag of salt each indicated "the
gap between government policy and practice", the human rights worker said it
was significant there had been a trial at all.
"...diplomats and human rights representatives were there, and indigenous people
stood up in front of government and judicial officials and said 'We demand our land
back'," the human rights workers said. The case is under appeal.
The spirit of determination and co-operation personified by the Ratanakiri indigenous
people was exemplified by Tampeun villager In Vin, who had spearheaded a community-based
initiative to protect he and his fellow villagers from the impact of both the controversial
Vietnamese Se San dam project and illegal logging by the Hero Taiwan concessionaire.
"We've set up this community project to protect our natural resources,"
he said. "It doesn't mean we're against the government or private business,
but we definitely are against anyone who does not respect the law and their promises."
Cash crop bonanza hopes turn to tribal bust
Chan Thida, 29, faces a grim choice that will determine if she will be able to
feed her family.
She can stay on her ailing farm of wilting coffee bushes in Busra village in Mondolkiri's
Pichada district or move to a paper plantation and hope the fortunes of that industry
will fare better than that of her coffee beans.
"If I give up my coffee farm, I will be devastated because all my life has been
invested into it" said Thida, an ethnic Phnong villager. "I am worried
that I won't be able to earn enough money to support my farm."
Thida is one of many ethnic tribal Phnong, Tampuan and Jarai across Mondolkuri and
Ratanakiri who are now paying the price for having switched from subsistence farming
techniques in favor of the fickle returns of cash crop commodities such as coffee
and cashew nuts.
Over the past five years, tribal communities in Ratanakiri and Mondolkiri have been
encouraged by government officials and private businessmen to switch from their traditional
livelihoods of swidden agriculture and the gathering of non-timber forest products
to the production of cash crops.
In both provinces the experiment has been an unqualified disaster.
In Busra village, around 40% of the 3,000 Phnong villagers now find themselves tending
wilting coffee bushes whose meager product will not even cover the production cost.
The problem, according to Busra village chief Sriv Khlek, is a combination of a lack
of proper irrigation and fertilizers and a global crash in the price of coffee that
has shrunk returns from 500 riels to 100 riels a kilo since 1999.
"We made a lot of money from the coffee plantations in 1998," Thida said
of the last time her coffee plantation was a source of income rather than concern.
"I used to make four damleung of gold (approximately $1,360) each year for four
tons of coffee beans."
Last year, Thida says, her harvest had dwindled to only 500 kilograms that earned
her only three chi ($102) in gold.
The Busra villagers were encouraged to switch from traditional crops to coffee due
to demand from coffee buyers in Vietnam's nearby Duc Lap province. But the lack of
government support for the cash crop venture and declining coffee prices have effectively
killed the industry in Busra, Khlek said.
"Villagers have neither the technology nor the marketing skills to improve their
coffee crops," he said.
In neighbouring Vietnam the government provided technological and financial assistance
for fertilizer and irrigation for coffee plantations.
The resultant poorer quality of Cambodian coffee has further hurt the profitability
of the crop.
"When the Vietnamese know that we are Cambodian, the price of coffee is not
good," said Sis Saly, a 42-year-old villager in Busra who got out of coffee
two years ago.
An indigenous Phnong in Mondolkiri's Dak Dam village takes part in a harvest celebration.
Saly planted 500 coffee trees and when the price of coffee went down in 1999, he
could not earn enough money to sustain his farm.
"I couldn't get water to my farm, I didn't have money to buy fertilizer... so
my coffee trees died," he said.
The collapse of the local coffee industry has only compounded the alienation many
of Cambodia's tribal people feel toward a government and society that they say ignores
or actively undermines their interests.
"We are living on Khmer land but we look like another nation and in a different
territory," said Phnong villager Chey Phai, who has had to give up his plantation
of several thousand trees.
The fallout of the collapse of the local coffee industry has repercussions that go
far beyond the economic.
Mondolkiri Governor Tor Soeuth says the increasingly impoverished coffee farmers
are being impelled to derive their livelihoods from illegal hunting and logging activities.
Noting that Prime Minister Hun Sen on March 14 called on the Minister of Commerce
to work on strategies for improving local and foreign marketing of domestic products,
Soeuth says not enough has been done to assist the local coffee industry.
"What I am concerned about is whether the government really has the will to
help the poor in the northeast of Cambodia because they are very vulnerable,"
said Soeuth. "We are concerned that the villagers will go back to illegal hunting
and logging that will impact on forestry and wildlife conservation."
In neighboring Ratanakiri the plight of tribal villagers tempted into the cultivation
of cash crops is distressingly similar.
In a recent report titled "Options for Upland Agricultural Development"
by Jeremy Ironside and Sal Yuch of the Non Timber Forest Products Project (NTFP),
coffee, cashew nut and oil palm ventures in recent years were shown to have been
dismal failures with significant negative impact on the quality of life of tribal
people involved in the projects.
The basic problem, the report argues, was a lack of consultation and partnership
with the tribal people in the area.
"...[tribal people] are experts about local climates and growing conditions,"
the report states. "A major lesson must surely be that production of a high
quality product combined with intelligent marketing is more important than planting
large areas of medium quality product that nobody wants."
The report urges that agricultural development in Ratanakiri balance short term financial
gains from cash crops with the long term implications of fluctuating global market
demands and the environmental toll of intensive single crop plantations.
"The economic benefits from large scale agricultural developments is more easily
seen [than in traditional agricultural methods] but the considerable environmental
and social costs that often result... are not sufficiently considered. The environmental
and social costs have to be paid by the country as a whole and [cash crop] development
can lead to long term impoverishment even while the economic statistics look positive."
Khek Ravy, Secretary of State for the Ministry of Commerce, told the Post that the
ministry has no control over coffee production in Cambodia.
"It is normal in business that when there is an increase in production, price
drops follow," he said of the coffee plantation woes in Cambodia's northeast.
Market feeds spiritual plunder
When Jarai villager Yol Suth was shown photographs of six Jarai funeral carvings
at a workshop in the Ratanakiri capital of Banlung in March, his reserved demeanor
"These are a sacred part of Jarai culture... this is what wealthy people put
around their graves to protect and to accompany them in death," he explained.
"I have not seen this for a long time... where did you take this picture?"
When told that the burial carvings in the photo were being sold in a gallery in Phnom
Penh, Suth grew visibly upset.
"This is wrong... it's very bad that people would take these things from the
graves and land of Jarai people," he said. "These statues should not even
be touched or moved... the ghosts will be very angry at the [deceased individual's]
family because of this desecration."
For Yuth, the Ministry of Culture and UNESCO, the presence of the Jarai carvings
at Phnom Penh's Bananier Voyageur gallery is evidence of a corrosive commodit-ization
of indigenous people's cultural heritage that must be stopped.
For Bananier Voyageur's owner, Nicholas Strauch, the extraction of such artefacts
from the forests of northeastern Cambodia is the only way to save them from the twin
threats of termites and looters.
Not so says Tamara Teneishvili, at the Standing Secretariat of Phnom Penh's UNESCO
office, who says the removal of the Jarai carvings under any circumstances is culturally
insensitive in the extreme.
"This was not an honorable deal," Teneishvili said of Strauch's acquisition
of the statues. "For Jarai [these carvings] are an important part of their cultural
heritage as well as sacred spiritual art and should not be bought and sold... it's
like going into a Catholic cemetery, seeing something you like and just taking it."
Strauch defends his purchase of the carvings, saying that Jarai relatives of the
deceased individual whose grave the carvings had surrounded were in the process of
burning the burial area to make way for a cashew plantation.
He dismissed the consideration of principals of cultural heritage in the acquisition
of artefacts, saying if applied universally "...the Louvre would be empty."
Sol Yuth rejects the suggestion that Jarai would burn their "sacred carvings".
"Jarai would never burn these... these must be left to protect the grave of
dead Jarai," he said, shaking his head in disbelief.
Teneishvili was able to convince Strauch to suspend his plans to sell the statues
pending the results of a special Ministry of Culture investigation of their cultural
On March 21, the Ministry ruled that the statues were "...considered ....cultural
heritage objects of the national level", and can only be sold with the supervision
of relevant authorities and exported under special circumstances.
Meanwhile, Strauch has listed the six carvings for sale for between $500 and $1,200
each and says the money raised will go towards the creation of a new museum of indigenous
artefacts he intends to build in Ratanakiri's provincial capital of Banlung within
the next six months.
He insists that he will only accept bids for the carvings from reputable international
companies in Cambodia who will commit to permanently displaying the pieces in their
For Sol Yuth, the prospect of the six carvings being sold to anyone prompted a plea
for their return.
"I ask the seller [of the carvings] to stop doing that...these things must not
be sold because they are a sacred part of our culture."