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
"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
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
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.