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Ethnic conference looks to the sacred Yeak Laom lake

Ethnic conference looks to the sacred Yeak Laom lake

O N the eve of an international seminar on ethnic development in the Ratanakiri capital

of Ban Lung, organizers have been urged to pay attention to the conservation of Yeak

Laom lake, to which beliefs, traditions and livelihoods of the hilltribes are linked.

"Yeak Laom lake is an historic and cultural site of the people living in the

northeast. It is a sacred place that we have to protect and any kind of development

must respect the culture of the highlanders and conserve the natural qualities such

as water and forest," said Environment Minister Mok Mareth.

The Ministry of Rural Development is sponsoring the seminar along with UNDP/CARERE,

UNESCO, Oxfam/UKI, CIDSE, Health Unlimited and IDRC. More than 100 people are to

gather in Ban Lung to discuss ways for sustainable development of the highlanders'

homeland, as well as Mondolkiri, Stoeng Treng and Kratie provinces. Guests from Vietnam,

Laos and Thailand will share experiences from their countries.

While the forum seems to offer isolated Ratanakiri hope for a new face, experts warned

that development plans should not be carried out at the expense of local tradition.

Yeak Laom is environmentally and culturally important. It is the focus of many spiritual

tales, and is marvelled for its clean waters and ability to hold rain water without

any incoming streams.

However, deforestation and increasing land sales have seen it become vulnerable.

"Yeak Laom lake is under threat from wandering farming. We must pay attention

to it because the water is natural and when there is no forest, there is no water,"

said Yem Sokhan, officer of natural resources in the Ministry of Environment.

Sokhan, his colleague Bee Seng Leang and Dom Taylor-Hunt, the technical environmental

advisor from the International Development Research Center (IDRC), spent three weeks

last month conducting research on the lake.

"The major cause of deforestation around the lake is that people cutting the

forest to make chamkar [farms]. They are doing that because they are suffering from

land pressure - there are many people who want to buy land, who want to push them

farther out," said Taylor-Hunt.

"You've got a rubber plantation pushing up from one end. It's been there since

the '60s and has taken a considerable amount of land away."

Moving away highlanders who have farmed around the lake for generations is not a

solution.

"We cannot stop them from farming in the area and cutting wood, but we can better

explain to them how to use their [resources] in the long-term," said Sokhan.

Taylor-Hunt said hilltribes leaders had indicated their willingness to cooperate

with outsiders in resource management.

"They want to use their resources. We want to save their resources for the future.

Management is a way forward, but to do it together is the way for helping them and

the environment," he said. He suggested boundaries could be drawn, with community

agreement, within the 5,000 hectare protected area around the lake to determine where

farming, hunting and wood cutting may be allowed, and to what extent.

In addition, he added, natural composting would help soil fertility and certain plant

species would help combat grass problems in the rice field.

"What we will do is to create a model of participatory management to protect

the area. That model can be applied to the other ten sites in Ratanakiri," he

said, adding that the lake was one of the 11 sites endorsed by the provincial authorities

as protected areas.

"These things can be introduced in a way that doesn't remove money from their

own current practice [of slash-and-burn or "swidden" agriculture], and

will improve the market system to enable locals to generate more income from selling

their products," Taylor-Hunt said.

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