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Ethnic Phnong villagers turn to homegrown produce for a living

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A tourist buys a papaya from an ethnic Phnong villager at a market in Mondulkiri province. Pha Lina

Ethnic Phnong villagers turn to homegrown produce for a living

As she walks in the rain, the 65-year-old ethnic Phnong woman is on her way to Sen Monorom to sell the wild bamboo shoots and bananas she carries on her back. She wears a blue shirt, a krama and yellow flip-flops.

It’s another day in Mondulkiri province, and the woman is one of many local ethnic minority members who earn a living by selling produce, either homegrown or foraged from the jungle.

Her bamboo shoots sell for 1,500 riel (20 cents) a bundle, and her bananas go for about 500 riel a bunch.

The woman has been selling her fruits and vegetables this way since 1994. She speaks broken Khmer and refuses to give her name, explaining that the Phnong do not share that information with strangers. Even so, her story is one told by many.

The 2008 census reported more than 200,000 ethnic minority members in Cambodia, about 1.2 per cent of the 15 million population. Most of the 24 minority groups live in rural areas and subsist on farming, forestry and seasonal crops. Many carry on the traditions of their ancestors.

In the mornings, tourists to the area watch as ethnic minority members trudge their goods from all directions to the Sen Monorom market, the one near the giant banteng statute that symbolises the rugged Mondulkiri region.

Another Phnong woman carries a load of papayas and a giant pumpkin. Her 15-year-old daughter has bamboo shoots on her back. The pair walks from stall to stall, trying to barter wholesale deals with the market vendors.

This 35-year-old woman has six children and speaks no Khmer. She said through a translator that with the money she makes selling vegetables, she buys rice, salt and fish sauce.

“When no one buys our products we cook porridge and eat it with salt or these vegetables and fruits,” she said.

Ethnic villagers have been a part of life in Mondulkiri for ages, yet some feel unwelcome amid the rapid modernisation. The older Phnong woman said she had been chased away from homes and even criticised for not voting. She remains resilient.

“They chased us out for just sitting there for a while to sell. I just sit for a bit, and they say, ‘Don’t sell here, go somewhere else’. I don’t mind them saying that if I stay to sell in front of their house for days, months or years,” she told The Post.

The tension felt by the ethnic people is not lost on local authorities. Mondulkiri’s tourism department director Ngin Sovimean said a new market has been built for ethnic groups to sell their products.

“Some of them don’t want to sell in the market and prefer to walk along the roads or go to houses so their produce can get sold as soon as possible. It is up to them.”

The mother and her teen daughter seem to have made their decision. After selling their produce, they had enough money to buy some rice and even some cakes for the long walk home. As the teenager popped one in her mouth, she smiled.

But when tomorrow comes, their routine starts all over again.

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