A boy fishes from atop a fallen tree at Yeak Laom Lake in Ban Lung, Ratanakkiri. The area is currently managed by the Tampuen indigenous community, who have a 25-year lease, but that hasn't stopped the optimistic from surveying the surrounding land.
s the midday sun reached its peak, two tourists slipped into the deep sapphirine
water of Yeak Laom, the volcanic crater lake surrounded by tall forest five kilometers
from Banlung in Ratanakkiri.
But just out of sight, trees are being cut, and the community fears it is losing
its grip on the pristine lake and forest.
Yeak Laom is touted as a rare case of community-based natural resource and tourism
management that actually works. Since the Tampuen indigenous community secured a
25-year lease with the provincial government in 1998, they have collected entrance
fees and sold handicrafts from a popular community center by the lake's edge.
But as the government implements its triangular development strategy - working with
Laos and Vietnam to promote travel in the northeast - there is concern that land
rights for Ratanakkiri's indigenous communities will buckle under the weight of tourism.
Graeme Brown, a member of the Community Forestry Alliance for Cambodia, said there
needs to be formal recognition of the community's ownership of land before tourism
is further promoted in the area.
"We are already seeing in Ratanakkiri situations where tourism has been a contributing
factor in rising land pressure that is seeing major land alienation," Brown
The new Land Law in 2001 provided indigenous communities the opportunity for collective
land titling, which recognized their communal land use. But a sub-decree on indigenous
collective title is still being drafted, delaying the issuing of titles.
There are five Tampuen minority villages in the area, with 300 families, said Tram
Yim, the administrator of the 12-member Yeak Laom committee.
Yim said they use the lake for fishing, and the surrounding forest for hunting, food
gathering, collecting bamboo to build their homes, and honoring the forest spirits
as part of their animist beliefs.
But the community worries that the local commune council, together with the provincial
authorities, will try to sell off the lake area.
Khmers were spotted measuring the land to the south of the lake at the end of last
year, Yim said. The villagers complained and told them they had to stop. They haven't
seen them since.
"If we lost the lake we have nothing," Yim said. "The Khmers have
already bought everywhere else - we have lost a lot of land already."
As the province opens up to tourism, the Tampuen people are beginning to feel new
Under the lease agreement, when the lakeside community center begins taking profits
beyond $10,000, the provincial authorities will start to take 25 percent of the earnings.
But a Yeak Laom villager who only wanted to be identified as Vichet, said the commune
council and provincial authorities are getting impatient and want a share of the
"They don't have any profit from Yeak Laom and they want to sell some of the
land so they can get some money," Vichet said.
But despite concerns from locals, the area is seen as a promising market for eco-tourism.
The Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Rural Development (MRD) signed a regional
development program agreement with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency
in March to move forward with tourism plans. First on the list of projects is the
expansion and paving of major roads between Banlung and Stung Treng province, as
well as Road 78 into Vietnam.
In addition, the Asian Development Bank recently announced a $4 million loan to renovate
the provincial airport, which currently has four scheduled flights per week.
Bouy Kim Sreang, deputy director of the department for ethnic minority development
at the MRD, said the government is committed to improving the livelihoods of indigenous
"Many, many places will become tourism areas, but in these areas we will do
impact assessments and provide resettlement or compensation for the people,"
Sreang said. "I don't think indigenous people will lose, I think they will benefit."
He said there were no programs to educate the communities in tourism management outlined
by the government at this stage.
"NGOs have said they will provide programs," Sreang said.
The NGO community working with the indigenous communities, however, said more support
is needed from the government.
"From what I see of tourism in other areas, it is imperative that local communities
have the ability to use tourism, rather than tourism use only the communities,"