"The imported Western culture defines land as solely the dry land. To the indigenous people of Cambodia, the concept of land includes the sky and its birds, the ocean, rivers and what lives in the water. The heads of households, and every indigenous person, understands they are linked to all these parts of the environment." - Sophal Cheng
As forest logging destroys the traditional ways of life for Indigenous Cambodians, TEAR’s partner is walking with villagers to connect them with the values that protect and nurture their culture. They do this with the conviction that “progress” is not solely defined by economics, but by the harmony of relationships, the flourishing of the natural environment, and the joy of community – all things which come through God’s transformative love.
Across North-Eastern Cambodia, the logging companies make great profits. The permits are easy to obtain, and the trees, apparently, are there for the taking. For some, it seems, money really does grow on trees.
TEAR's partner, The International Cooperation Cambodia, has the vision to: "see the least served communities in Cambodia transformed by God's love to experience restored relationships, sustainable livelihoods, competence to make wise decisions and sustainable gospel witness."
But for the indigenous people who have, for generations, dwelt on this land – the Bunong, Brao, Krung, Tampuan and Jarai peoples – the forest is their home. Their culture and livelihood is rooted in those trees. This, of course, is of little consideration to the authorities and the companies whose economic interests trump the cultural significance of indigenous minorities.
In Cambodia’s indigenous minorities, we see once-thriving traditional cultures, healthy and prosperous on their own terms, being impoverished and marginalized by the economic and social interests of the powerful. TEAR’s partner, the International Cooperation Cambodia (ICC), is walking alongside these indigenous minorities, providing them with the skills to navigate their way through this devastatingly difficult transition period.
It’s significant that the ICC project – called identity-Based Community Development and Education (iBCDE) – refers to its work as “walking with”, rather than “working with”, the communities. It’s radical in the way it defines progress – as the community’s well-being, and the strength of its relationships.
According to Sophal Cheng, the project’s Director, the outcomes of the project “are dependent on the communities’ own expressed goals and chosen plans, looking at the behavioural, environmental and policy changes through ‘progress markers’. Simply put, we listen to the stories that we hear and see how the communities are able to get closer to the vision of the indigenous people, keeping a sense of dignity while making the changes they find necessary.” The communities they work with are helped to: “prioritise their own actions, plan how to take the next steps, how they might work together to address their concerns, and fulfil their hopes for the future.”
Sophal Cheng describes the connection the indigenous communities have with their land: “The forest and land is strongly connected to the indigenous identity. The traditional way, with its strong connection with the natural environment, reminds me of what we read in Genesis 1:9-13; 28-30. God gave man and the animals the plants to eat.
The forest has served as the indigenous peoples’ warehouse and supermarket – their food bank. Whatever they trade in their small markets comes from this source. The creeks and rivers provide food and sustenance and water the land. The sky, with the sun and the moon and stars, are treated as searchlights to provide guidance while giving room for birds to fly and air to breathe. Rain and sun sustain life. Elephants are their vehicles and traditional medicine comes from trees.
The people live on land that, over time, has become a part of them. Different vegetation and plants and creatures in the environment influence the socio-cultural customs and norms of the indigenous inhabitants.”
Burning stumps are all that are left after loggers clear the forest in North-East Cambodia.
"The indigenous people now struggle with their lives. They struggle to assert their cultural rights against the majority Khmer political system. They struggle to participate in new competitive markets. And they struggle to overcome the perception of those in power that they are an inferior indigenous minority."
Over the past decade, logging (legal and illegal) has removed so much more than the forest. Sophal continues, describing its impact on the local communities:
“Recent development of infrastructure and commerce in these provinces has caused big changes. Social relationships have been damaged as well as the environment and livelihoods. Indigenous social structures, culture and identity are threatened.
The indigenous people now struggle with their lives. They struggle to assert their cultural rights against the majority Khmer political system. They struggle to participate in new competitive markets. And they struggle to overcome the perception of those in power that they are an inferior indigenous minority.
Their new situation requires new skills, which they lack. They need support to engage in local and national decision-making processes. They suffer the consequences of being disempowered in the economic and political decisions that affect their way of life.
The forests and land and all these resources are now in the process of being destroyed for commercial purposes. The idea from the Government is for economic growth but this idea of economic benefit alone damages the indigenous quality of life.”
It’s not easy to walk alongside communities in crisis. To manage the work, iBCDE has two teams of staff. One is concerned with the technical aspects of their work: engaging communities with issues of gender, hygiene, nutrition and rights. The other is concerned with dialogue, and works to support cultural development. Dialogue team members are recruited from the local area and can speak the local languages and understand the local cultures. This enables the project to identify the specific cultural changes faced by each individual indigenous minority.
Sophal says: “We seek to strategically influence the interaction of the community in cultural ways with education and in management of the environment. So that they are able to together verbalise and prioritise these issues as a group.
Dialogue teams support the community as they deal with rights violations and the loss of land. We work to help the community mobilise their resources as well as claiming their rights for education.
The dialogue teams help with building on existing relations with the communities to think more deeply about their culture and to think about their cultural change and the resources they already share.”
There are so many competing interests to navigate in this process. Many young people have not learned from their culture and have little knowledge of their own traditional connections to the forest, or of the practices associated with living from what the forest has to offer. Some community members also support logging, reasoning that if they don’t cut down the trees (and at least benefit from the immediate income), then someone else will (and they’ll miss out on both cash and trees). If deforestation is inevitable, they may as well gain some benefit...
Despite these internal pressures, as iBCDE has walked with communities over the years, they are seeing significant empowerment and strengthened relationships. Communities are taking action, such as:
Sophal says: “When they work together in this way, the indigenous people have been able to build a sense of trust, common values, and a common cause. The iBCDE staff have further been able to connect the communities to one another through, for example, study visits and joint workshops. Staff have provided support to the indigenous people as they connect with various institutions, companies, and individuals in power, to help them raise their concerns and build relationships in peaceful ways.
This support to building relationships also includes iBCDE staff, being indigenous people themselves, connecting with NGOs who are mostly staffed by Khmer or international workers, so that they can better understand the world views and cultures of the indigenous people and groups that are being formed.”
Although bringing the forest back to a pristine state and returning to a traditional way of life may not be realistic options for the indigenous peoples of North-Eastern Cambodia, it may yet be possible to find a way through together, where culture is preserved and some forest is saved. What this project has achieved is to enable the indigenous people of this region to realise that they can adapt their culture to their changing circumstances, protect the forest and value strong relationships over economics.
TEAR Australia is thankful for the support of the Australian Government's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) which co-funds this project with TEAR Australia.
Ny Kanon is an elder in Srae Krieng Village. He tells his story:
“At the beginning, there was not any development in Srae Krieng Village. We were living here and depending wholly on our natural resources, hunting wild animals and fishing, and we had enough food to support our lives. After (the logging company) came here to clear out our forest land and grow rubber plants, we were hopeless. We did not know what to do, only to live one day at a time.
ICC came to work on development in our village in 2013. They discussed with the villagers about how to set up new livelihoods for the family, such as growing vegetables to eat in the family and selling to the market. ICC promoted hygiene, education agriculture, human rights and especially the rights of our indigenous minority people.
Nowadays, my village has much more knowledge and we are more creative than before. We are developing fast, especially in agriculture, such as growing rice, mangoes, bananas, sugarcane, vegetables and fruit, and starting to learn to make and use organic fertilisers. At the end of the year 2014 my village had six water wells, ten toilets, one cultural center and one literacy class in which to learn our mother tongue.
The elders in the village and I are encouraging people to work together and help each other, having one strength and one mind. This year we agreed together to develop our village by ourselves. We built one big bridge, which is 30 metres long, and many small bridges, and made one community cultural centre successfully.
We can do all of these things because of our creativity and helping hands – working together as one mind and one strength."
Dominique Emery is a TEAR Australia Communications Officer.
This project has received funding from the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), responsible for Australia's overseas aid program.
Our monthly email news 'TEAR Update' includes development insights from our partners, advocacy ideas, and events.
TEAR Australia is a Christian development, relief and advocacy organisation responding to global poverty and injustice. More >