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