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Cambodia's hill tribes at the crossroads

Cambodia's hill tribes at the crossroads


Members of an indigenous Phnong percussion band prepare to start off harvest celebrations

In Cambodia's northeastern provinces of Ratanakiri and Mondolkiri, the ethnic

peoples are grappling with the perennial plagues of poverty, internal migration,

land confiscation and the steady erosion of their culture from outside influences.

But unlike their counterparts in neighboring Vietnam, where frustration and resentment

over similar griefs has flared into public street demon-strations, Cambodia's indigenous

people are taking a different tack. Instead of taking to the streets, Cambodia's

indigenous people are taking their exploiters to court and supporting grassroots

initiatives to protect their land and way of life - with varying degrees of success.


Vong Sokheng, Bou Saroeun and Phelim Kyne look at how Cambodia's indigenous

peoples are facing these challenges.

On March 1, 2000, a group of ethnic indigenous tribal people crossed the border from

Vietnam into Cambodia's Mondol-kiri province seeking political asylum from the demonstrations

that hit Vietnam's Central Highlands two months ago.

Five days later, representatives of indigenous people from Cambodia's Ratanakiri

began three days of frank, face-to-face discussions with Cambodian government, human

rights and development workers to air their grievances and suggest new approaches

during a three-day workshop.

Through round table discussions, skits and impassioned speeches on the effects of

uncontrolled logging, mining and land confiscation, the indigenous representatives

presented their case and in no uncertain terms demanded action.

These two vignettes highlight the colossal divide between the attitudes and mechanisms

applied to the problems faced by indigenous ethnic groups in Vietnam and Cambodia.

While the traditional lands of Jarai, Tampeun and Kreung indigenous people straddle

the Vietnam-Cambodia border, the official approach to resolving their mutual problems

are worlds apart.

"... land ownership has increasingly been a problem [on both sides of the

border], but here in Cambodia there are integrated grassroots-based initiatives to

address them," commented a human rights worker who attended the Ratanakiri workshop.

"On the other side of the border there's no venue for expression and when the

indigenous people finally spoke after having their frustrations bottled up for years,

the military came in."

While conceding that the March 23 ruling by the Ratanakiri Provincial Court that

effectively allowed a senior military official to cheat more than 900 Jarai and Tampeun

people of 1,200 hectares of land in return for a bag of salt each indicated "the

gap between government policy and practice", the human rights worker said it

was significant there had been a trial at all.

"...diplomats and human rights representatives were there, and indigenous people

stood up in front of government and judicial officials and said 'We demand our land

back'," the human rights workers said. The case is under appeal.

The spirit of determination and co-operation personified by the Ratanakiri indigenous

people was exemplified by Tampeun villager In Vin, who had spearheaded a community-based

initiative to protect he and his fellow villagers from the impact of both the controversial

Vietnamese Se San dam project and illegal logging by the Hero Taiwan concessionaire.

"We've set up this community project to protect our natural resources,"

he said. "It doesn't mean we're against the government or private business,

but we definitely are against anyone who does not respect the law and their promises."

Cash crop bonanza hopes turn to tribal bust

Chan Thida, 29, faces a grim choice that will determine if she will be able to

feed her family.

She can stay on her ailing farm of wilting coffee bushes in Busra village in Mondolkiri's

Pichada district or move to a paper plantation and hope the fortunes of that industry

will fare better than that of her coffee beans.

"If I give up my coffee farm, I will be devastated because all my life has been

invested into it" said Thida, an ethnic Phnong villager. "I am worried

that I won't be able to earn enough money to support my farm."

Thida is one of many ethnic tribal Phnong, Tampuan and Jarai across Mondolkuri and

Ratanakiri who are now paying the price for having switched from subsistence farming

techniques in favor of the fickle returns of cash crop commodities such as coffee

and cashew nuts.

Over the past five years, tribal communities in Ratanakiri and Mondolkiri have been

encouraged by government officials and private businessmen to switch from their traditional

livelihoods of swidden agriculture and the gathering of non-timber forest products

to the production of cash crops.

In both provinces the experiment has been an unqualified disaster.

In Busra village, around 40% of the 3,000 Phnong villagers now find themselves tending

wilting coffee bushes whose meager product will not even cover the production cost.

The problem, according to Busra village chief Sriv Khlek, is a combination of a lack

of proper irrigation and fertilizers and a global crash in the price of coffee that

has shrunk returns from 500 riels to 100 riels a kilo since 1999.

"We made a lot of money from the coffee plantations in 1998," Thida said

of the last time her coffee plantation was a source of income rather than concern.

"I used to make four damleung of gold (approximately $1,360) each year for four

tons of coffee beans."

Last year, Thida says, her harvest had dwindled to only 500 kilograms that earned

her only three chi ($102) in gold.

The Busra villagers were encouraged to switch from traditional crops to coffee due

to demand from coffee buyers in Vietnam's nearby Duc Lap province. But the lack of

government support for the cash crop venture and declining coffee prices have effectively

killed the industry in Busra, Khlek said.

"Villagers have neither the technology nor the marketing skills to improve their

coffee crops," he said.

In neighbouring Vietnam the government provided technological and financial assistance

for fertilizer and irrigation for coffee plantations.

The resultant poorer quality of Cambodian coffee has further hurt the profitability

of the crop.

"When the Vietnamese know that we are Cambodian, the price of coffee is not

good," said Sis Saly, a 42-year-old villager in Busra who got out of coffee

two years ago.

An indigenous Phnong in Mondolkiri's Dak Dam village takes part in a harvest celebration.

Saly planted 500 coffee trees and when the price of coffee went down in 1999, he

could not earn enough money to sustain his farm.

"I couldn't get water to my farm, I didn't have money to buy fertilizer... so

my coffee trees died," he said.

The collapse of the local coffee industry has only compounded the alienation many

of Cambodia's tribal people feel toward a government and society that they say ignores

or actively undermines their interests.

"We are living on Khmer land but we look like another nation and in a different

territory," said Phnong villager Chey Phai, who has had to give up his plantation

of several thousand trees.

The fallout of the collapse of the local coffee industry has repercussions that go

far beyond the economic.

Mondolkiri Governor Tor Soeuth says the increasingly impoverished coffee farmers

are being impelled to derive their livelihoods from illegal hunting and logging activities.

Noting that Prime Minister Hun Sen on March 14 called on the Minister of Commerce

to work on strategies for improving local and foreign marketing of domestic products,

Soeuth says not enough has been done to assist the local coffee industry.

"What I am concerned about is whether the government really has the will to

help the poor in the northeast of Cambodia because they are very vulnerable,"

said Soeuth. "We are concerned that the villagers will go back to illegal hunting

and logging that will impact on forestry and wildlife conservation."

In neighboring Ratanakiri the plight of tribal villagers tempted into the cultivation

of cash crops is distressingly similar.

In a recent report titled "Options for Upland Agricultural Development"

by Jeremy Ironside and Sal Yuch of the Non Timber Forest Products Project (NTFP),

coffee, cashew nut and oil palm ventures in recent years were shown to have been

dismal failures with significant negative impact on the quality of life of tribal

people involved in the projects.

The basic problem, the report argues, was a lack of consultation and partnership

with the tribal people in the area.

"...[tribal people] are experts about local climates and growing conditions,"

the report states. "A major lesson must surely be that production of a high

quality product combined with intelligent marketing is more important than planting

large areas of medium quality product that nobody wants."

The report urges that agricultural development in Ratanakiri balance short term financial

gains from cash crops with the long term implications of fluctuating global market

demands and the environmental toll of intensive single crop plantations.

"The economic benefits from large scale agricultural developments is more easily

seen [than in traditional agricultural methods] but the considerable environmental

and social costs that often result... are not sufficiently considered. The environmental

and social costs have to be paid by the country as a whole and [cash crop] development

can lead to long term impoverishment even while the economic statistics look positive."

Khek Ravy, Secretary of State for the Ministry of Commerce, told the Post that the

ministry has no control over coffee production in Cambodia.

"It is normal in business that when there is an increase in production, price

drops follow," he said of the coffee plantation woes in Cambodia's northeast.

Market feeds spiritual plunder

When Jarai villager Yol Suth was shown photographs of six Jarai funeral carvings

at a workshop in the Ratanakiri capital of Banlung in March, his reserved demeanor

changed drastically.

"These are a sacred part of Jarai culture... this is what wealthy people put

around their graves to protect and to accompany them in death," he explained.

"I have not seen this for a long time... where did you take this picture?"

When told that the burial carvings in the photo were being sold in a gallery in Phnom

Penh, Suth grew visibly upset.

"This is wrong... it's very bad that people would take these things from the

graves and land of Jarai people," he said. "These statues should not even

be touched or moved... the ghosts will be very angry at the [deceased individual's]

family because of this desecration."

For Yuth, the Ministry of Culture and UNESCO, the presence of the Jarai carvings

at Phnom Penh's Bananier Voyageur gallery is evidence of a corrosive commodit-ization

of indigenous people's cultural heritage that must be stopped.

For Bananier Voyageur's owner, Nicholas Strauch, the extraction of such artefacts

from the forests of northeastern Cambodia is the only way to save them from the twin

threats of termites and looters.

Not so says Tamara Teneishvili, at the Standing Secretariat of Phnom Penh's UNESCO

office, who says the removal of the Jarai carvings under any circumstances is culturally

insensitive in the extreme.

"This was not an honorable deal," Teneishvili said of Strauch's acquisition

of the statues. "For Jarai [these carvings] are an important part of their cultural

heritage as well as sacred spiritual art and should not be bought and sold... it's

like going into a Catholic cemetery, seeing something you like and just taking it."

Strauch defends his purchase of the carvings, saying that Jarai relatives of the

deceased individual whose grave the carvings had surrounded were in the process of

burning the burial area to make way for a cashew plantation.

He dismissed the consideration of principals of cultural heritage in the acquisition

of artefacts, saying if applied universally "...the Louvre would be empty."

Sol Yuth rejects the suggestion that Jarai would burn their "sacred carvings".

"Jarai would never burn these... these must be left to protect the grave of

dead Jarai," he said, shaking his head in disbelief.

Teneishvili was able to convince Strauch to suspend his plans to sell the statues

pending the results of a special Ministry of Culture investigation of their cultural


On March 21, the Ministry ruled that the statues were "...considered ....cultural

heritage objects of the national level", and can only be sold with the supervision

of relevant authorities and exported under special circumstances.

Meanwhile, Strauch has listed the six carvings for sale for between $500 and $1,200

each and says the money raised will go towards the creation of a new museum of indigenous

artefacts he intends to build in Ratanakiri's provincial capital of Banlung within

the next six months.


He insists that he will only accept bids for the carvings from reputable international

companies in Cambodia who will commit to permanently displaying the pieces in their

offices here.

For Sol Yuth, the prospect of the six carvings being sold to anyone prompted a plea

for their return.

"I ask the seller [of the carvings] to stop doing that...these things must not

be sold because they are a sacred part of our culture."


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