oral district, Kompong Speu province – When the government gave preliminary approval to a multi-million dollar project that would turn sites sacred to Kompong Speu’s indigenous Suy people into a resort and golf course, Suy elder Prach Him, 66, had never even heard of the deal.
He and the other 216 indigenous Suy families, whose ancestors are believed to descend from the kings of Angkor, were only told about the plan that would flood their sacred hot springs in an artificial lake by NGO workers opposing the project.
“We are poor people, so we are poor of knowledge too. That is why we didn’t know anything until the NGO told us of the plans,” Prach Him said Thursday.
The development could be the death blow to the area’s ancient Suy culture, which has suffered from loggers cutting the trees they tap for resin and cleared forest from which they gathered vines, rattan and other goods.
“We have no land titles, we cannot protect our forest because we are afraid of others and we do not understand the laws,” said fellow Suy elder, Uon Ty, a member of the Cha’in commune council in Oral district.
The plight Uon Ty described Thursday at the first ever national meeting of Cambodia’s indigenous people, held in the Suy’s Trang village, was echoed throughout the first day of this three-day conference.
Stories of lost traditions, lost land and lost forest were the refrain, as the meeting kicked off a process to create a decree that will allow indigenous communities to obtain titles on their ancestral land and thus better protect it.
Speakers from Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri told of powerful people clearing their forests and grabbing their lands.
But it was not a simple case of outsiders exploiting the indigenous communities.
“We are ignorant,” said Ing Yiev, a Phnong minority member from Mondolkiri’s Keo Seima district. “The rich encouraged the villagers to clear forest for farms and they exchange motorcycles for those pieces of land,” he said.
Lak Sophin, of the Tampoun tribe in Ratanakkiri’s Bokeo district, said the hill tribe people “are poisoned with motorcycles.”
Yoeun Dy, a Kuoy from Stung Treng, told of losing his people’s forests. “During 1984, ’85, ’96, ’97, there was a lot of logging. They cut down all our resin trees but did not pay the villagers,“ Yoeun Dy said.
They appealed for help to strengthen local communities to combat the problems they face.