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Modernity closing in on ancient lifestyles

Modernity closing in on ancient lifestyles

With modern development encroaching on much of Cambodia's rural population, the traditional

slash-and-burn lifestyle of Mondulkiri's Phnong minority faces a growing land-use

threat in addition to cyclical disasters like famine and drought.

Of the 13,068 hectares of crops planted this year in Mondolkiri, 10,099 hectares

have been destroyed by lack of rain, according to a November 15 report from the Ministry

of Agriculture.

With most of their crops damaged, many Phnong families have reduced their food intake

to two meals per day.

A recent report from Refugees International (RI) called for government, NGOs, the

private sector and international donors to support communal land titles for the Phnong,

reflecting their traditional slash-and-burn farming techniques.

The Phnong are the largest ethnic group in Mondolkiri, making up a quarter of the

province's 40,000 people, but remain marginalized in terms of access to education,

health and land rights.

"The best way to help the Phnong now is to enforce the new land law, which recognizes

both private and communal property," said Kenneth Bacon, President of RI. "I

believe that both government and private agencies are beginning to focus on the problem."

Bacon said that government is working to implement the land law, but the progress

is slow.

The Phnong have traditionally lived in thatched, bamboo huts in the mountainous areas

near the Vietnamese border, moving their farms and homes every three to five years

to seek fresh soil. They grow rice and other crops such as beans, squash and corn

on small plots cleared in the dense forest, supplementing what they grow with food

and saleable products such as tree resin collected from the surrounding jungle.

But with better road access, increasing tourism and continuing illegal logging in

the province, the RI report says the Phnong people will have to face up to a reduction

in the areas they can farm or roam for gathering food, medicinal herbs and other

forest products.

Changes are beginning already, with some Phnong families building more permanent

Khmer-style houses.

According to the report, most Phnong people do not own land titles. This is partly

because of their communal concept of land use, but also because they lack land deeds,

surveys, written records of land use and photographs that are necessary to establish

and register land ownership under the 2001 law. The ethnic language of the Phnong

has no written version.

Other challenges remain, with some local authorities opposing the NGOs and pushing

the Phnong to apply for individual land titles.

"Before, the ethnic [groups] like the Phnong lived outside the society [but]

now we want them to live in society like other Khmer people," said Khoy Khun

Huor, first deputy governor of Mondolkiri.

"We are preparing to provide them the land title," he says. "If they

live in the communal land it will be difficult for them, because they do not have

the land title."

He said providing individual land titles to ethnic people would not adversely affect

their farming land and a permanent base would allow them to improve their living

standard.

The RI report also says that the key to helping the Phnong in the future is to teach

them new farming techniques to increase food output for consumption and sale, and

help them understand the land law.

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