On the Frontiers of Change

Development in the east Cambodian region Mondulkiri comes with both opportunities as well as challenges, Laila Mendy reports.
In the rolling hills of Cambodia the chainsaw roars, the birds are silent, and Spiritus Mundi imagines another arid land. There’s been a dramatic change recently in Cambodia. “Recently” meaning the past five years for Pou Krough village in Srae Ampun commune and the last fifteen years in Pu Lu of Bousra commune. Different forms of development in the eastern plains landscape of Mondulkiri are very quickly following the sad trends of land degradation, deforestation and wildlife loss seen elsewhere around the globe. In Mondulkiri, however, rather than reading the statistics I am here watching the transformations occur before my eyes. And the sights are awe-inspiring, if not a little frightening.
Development in Cambodia makes for an exciting time. The villagers await schools, hospitals and opportunities they had never dreamed possible. Speaking to those with young children who never had the chance of school themselves, but knew of it, education is a promise of employment, wealth and security for their families. Without education, the future is bleak. But for the older generations the bleakness is already here. These older villagers I speak to, of at least 45 years of age, are significantly more pessimistic. And having seen so much destruction and inequality in only five months of being here, I sadly can see why.
I watch as trees turn to timber, the dirt tracks are paved over with roads that are promptly destroyed under the weight and speed of the miner’s lorry, and the luxurious apartments are built to tower almost poetically over their neighbourhood tin shacks. NGOs for forestry, wildlife, and rural poor, claim a large brand presence in the capital of Mondulkiri, Sen Monorom. But their work is futile. ‘Eco-tourism’ is a buzzword that means the luxury of riding abused elephants and taking indigenous people safaris. We all know it. Tourists are told that it supports the rural poor. But with many guides working for wages of around 50 cents an hour for ten hours, the owners of these tours do not share the 35 dollars paid per customer. Development is happening in Mondulkiri, and once more the rural poor are neglected, marginalised and pushed into livelihoods they don’t necessarily need.
For the past six weeks I’ve been interviewing members of the Bunong community in Srae Ampun and Bousra. My translator, himself a Bunong man from a nearby village, drives me half an hour east of Sen Monorom. Along the way we pass other villages that are ethnically Bunong. I can see that these villagers still practise fairly traditional livelihoods. Bunong houses are framed with bamboo and roofed with grass. Most families still rely upon subsistence farming, having only recently become integrated with market economies. I can see their farms inside the forest as we drive by. The Bunong are a distinct minority group, with a different language, traditions and lifestyles to the majority Khmer of Cambodia. Practitioners of animism religions, they believe in forest spirits, ancestral worship, and animal sacrifices. Having lived on the highlands of Eastern Cambodia and Western Vietnam for as long as their history goes back, it is clear to see how their culture adapted to the surrounding abundance of pristine forestry. Their ongoing use and reliance on the forest is still seen in medicines, light sources and building supplies.
Speaking to different villagers, their opinions on development vary greatly. It is the elder generations who have the most insight to provide: “we do it for our children” is a sentiment repeated by many. Of course they do, but are they all aware of the extra costs of development? There must be cultural and environmental costs to all this progress?
“Every time something new comes, we lose something old,” according to a Srae Ampun man of more than 80 years (he never knew his birthday), who did not wear clothes until the 1960s, and who I witnessed trying to cure lung disease with a traditional healing ceremony. He and his neighbour have amazing myths and stories to share with me. Stories that are forgotten by his great grandchildren; that are at risk of being lost in time like most of human history. The way they tell me about different periods of his village, it is impossible for me to fully grasp how life looked when they were children. Fundamental to village identity was ‘deep forest’, and it is something I have not witnessed yet. Tigers, wild elephants and buffalo were as common during their young adulthoods as the American bombs and guerrilla fighters searching amid the land-mines for his village.
Many of the older generation pinpoint the same definitive moment when change slowly began for them; when they went from semi-nomadic forest dwellers to stationary villages. According to the elders, to avoid recruitment and destruction many villages would move every few years. The daughter of a previous village chief of Pu Lu’s, herself about 70 years old, explained how a village just twelve kilometres from the Vietnamese border could claim to have been founded fifty kilometres away to the south. During the Cambodian war period, the villages moved several times into different parts of the forest to avoid violence. During ‘Pol Pot Time’, however, the villages were often burnt down. In Pou Krough half of the families fled to Vietnam, those who stayed risked murder or starvation. About 50 percent of the population of Mondulkiri died or disappeared during this period. After the Khmer Rouge, I was told that full liberties never returned to the villagers. As well as punishment for speaking their own language and wearing traditional clothing, new concepts of property were introduced. This period slowly paved the way for the land-grabbing I am witnessing today. Freedom in the forest became a thing of the past.
The villagers of Srae Ampun tell me that when the work came for the plantations, the Bunong flocked towards the opportunity. Five dollars for ten hours of work was something almost beyond comprehension. Money, in fact, was only introduced to Pou Krough in early 2000s. But along with the work, the forest was lost. After the plantations arrived the improvement of the road reduced the journey to the city from half a day’s ride into a half hour. The road increased opportunity for villagers to visit relatives and the nearby city. But along with the road came more developments. The size of the village has increased with new families from other provinces looking for cheap land and fertile soil, further disappearing the forest around village. Illegal activities have skyrocketed; tree smuggling to Vietnam is rampant around this commune. Alongside this, hunting wildlife for bushmeat trade in Sen Monorom has left the Bunong villagers without access to meat. It is hard to compete with the electric traps and guns from the city, when you are banned from using these instruments.
Despite this sad history, parents are extremely grateful for some of the opportunities of development. I asked a first time mother, who never went to school, what she believed would lead to a positive future for her daughter: ”One way is to send her to good school… Get a good knowledge, as she will get a good job for the future.” I asked if there were other options for success: ”Only one way: is to go to school. It’s very important.”
While parents are glad for the access to education, there is fear of the future. My translator explained the fears of the same woman: “So she thinks that for her daughter’s generation it will be more hard. Because [it’s] difficult to find a job and make a farm. Because all the forest belongs to someone else, some company and rich people… and for government. So they can not escape away, move around and make a farm.” The Bunong traditionally practise swidden farming, a very diverse method of farming that often involve rotational agriculture, leaving plots in fallow and burning land to increase soil fertility. Swidden – or slash and burn – or rotational agriculture (it has many names) is a very old method of farming, but only recently are scientists realising that it’s many valuable traits to sustain forest quality and wildlife populations are being lost to monoculture and land clearing. The Cambodian government discourages villagers from subsistence farming and with the introduction of property and privatisation of forestry swidden agriculture is nearly impossible.
Some villagers have sought to resist further loss of access to forests with the creation of communal forestry. Pou Krough has been successful, and now has the autonomy of a local forest. Pu Lu of Bousra has not been permitted to keep any forestry. Despite the chosen location being home to several places of worship and an ancestral burial ground the forest has been cut down for migrants to the commune. That migrants were granted the property of claimed ancestral land at the expense of the local community, which had been victim to so much loss of land, has deeply offended villagers. Resistance and protest has been met with violence.
Sadly, since having interviewed two chiefs of community forestry, I fear that this endeavour leaves the forest still vulnerable. Their purposes are noble, and yet, once again I will call them futile. Both claim that policemen and outsiders are involved in illegal logging inside the village, a claim backed up by more than half of the people I’ve spoken to. Both tell me that the growing population of the village has put exhaustive strain on non-timber forest product extraction. And both accuse the government and army of hunting local wildlife.
On the way out of the village and back to the city I often talk with my translator about some of the things we have seen or heard that day. On a particularly accusatory day, where villagers suspected corruption in different levels of government, my translator shared some sad news with me. He had been approached by a member of the provincial government who was interested in selling the community forest in Srae Ampun to a foreign agricultural company. The villagers have no idea.
By Laila Mendy