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Migrating Khmers put squeeze on hill tribes

Migrating Khmers put squeeze on hill tribes

MORE than 10 per cent of Ratanakkiri's 80,000 in habitants are recent immigrants

from the low lands wanting to farm the province's fertile hills, according to provincial

authorities who are encouraging the moves.

However the migration has been criticized by NGOs working with hill tribes, who say

Ratanakkiri's indigenous people will pay a heavy price for their new neighbors.

The majority of people in Ratanakkiri are ethnic minorities who depend for their

living on shifting cultivation. They plant only one rice crop a year and rely heavily

on non-timber forest products such as vines, rattan, plant leaves, and traditional

medicines.

But now they are threatened by the constant flow into the area of lowland Khmer who

have been encouraged to migrate by provincial authorities.

Second deputy governor Bun Hom Oun Many said that more than ten per cent of the province's

people are low landers who have come to live in his province, bringing with them

lowland agricultural practices..

It is easy for the newcomers to obtain land: village heads and commune leaders

seem willing to allocate land in their areas.

Oun Many said that most of the people who move up-country don't want to go back because

the land is so much more fertile. He said the newcomers generally lived in peace

with the ethnic hill-tribe people.

Van Chunly, Ratanakkiri first deputy governor, said the move by Khmer farmers into

the area was welcomed because they brought new sedentary farming techniques which

he hoped the hill tribes would adopt rather than the slash-and-burn model they currently

follow.

The newcomers are mostly from Takeo, Svay Rieng and Kampong Cham provinces, where

they were short of land for growing wet rice and farming. Their fields were infertile

and the land suffered from drought and flooding.

Yim Phoy, 43, just moved up from Kampong Cham, came with his family and his brother's

family to live in Pok Pour village, O'Yada district. He arrived in April 1999 and

he was given an 80 metre-wide strip along Route 19 by the chief of the commune.

For his first crop he is growing peanuts because they grow quickly and are easily

marketed in Vietnam at the border checkpoint on Route 19.

Phloy said he was welcomed by the local Jarai village chief in Pok Pour and the commune

chief. He said he will share his experience in the lowland with the Jarai to help

them grow more food. He added that the ethnic minorities have no idea of growing

things for sale; they grow just for their families.

Many said that bringing the technology from lowland to upland will help the indigenous

tribes stop clearing the forest.

However environmentalists are concerned the influx of lowlanders will hurt the indigenous

people's culture and health, citing a promotion of self-interest over the current

emphasis on communal values and the impact on forestry as specific worries.

Van Pisith, Director of the Culture and Environment Preservation Association (CEPA),

said that the newcomers from the lowland will affect the indigenous people in various

ways, such as bringing cheap second-hand modern clothing which will encourage them

to abandon traditional clothing, and breaking down community living with its mutual

help and solidarity.

A spokesman from Non-Timber Forest Products agreed that the indigenous people were

likely to abandon their villages and move deeper into the forest rather than live

next to Khmer immigrants.

He said some lowland people when they arrived seized land left fallow by the indigenous

people as part of their rotation, so that they could not return to lands they had

enjoyed for centuries.

He said the lowlanders were quick to apply for papers establishing title to the land

they occupied, whereas the indigenous tribes had no concept of land title, as all

land had always been held in common.

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