Environment Minister Say Sam Al on Friday pledged to protect the culture of Cambodia’s indigenous minorities, before going on to say that those groups need to learn to survive without relying on the forests they have depended on for centuries.
Presiding over the launch of a new initiative—led by the NGO Save Cambodia’s Wildlife—to protect Virachey National Park and Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary, Mr. Sam Al first attempted to placate a group of about 30 indigenous people who had traveled to Phnom Penh from the two protected forests, which are in the far northeast of the country.
“In Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng, there are indigenous people who have their own identity,” the environment minister said to a group of about 80 people assembled at the Himawari Hotel. “We have an obligation to protect their indigenous identity and culture.”
Ethnic Kreung, Jarai and Tampoun make up the majority of the indigenous population in the country’s northeast. Traditionally, they live from the land, practice rotational farming and bury their deceased in what they call spirit forests.
In recent years, however, those forests have increasingly been turned over to economic land concessions and targeted by illegal loggers, who plunder them for rare, luxury timber to be exported overseas. A study by the University of Maryland found that Cambodia lost 2,132 square km of forest in 2013 alone.
Following the launch of the new initiative Friday, Mr. Sam Al said that while “wood is part of our culture,” the time had come for indigenous people to look outside the forests for ways to earn a living, and that economic land concessions could provide such opportunities.
“What we are trying to do is develop our agriculture industry to create jobs for our people, so hopefully they don’t have to depend on the forests anymore,” he said. “They [should] depend on something else, like a skill.”
However, Hap Tiep, a 40-year-old ethnic Prov living in Ratanakkiri’s Veun Sai district, said he had no desire to move away from his current lifestyle, in which he farms Samrong trees for two months a year and sells the fruit.
“I can make between 100,000 riel and 200,000 riel [about $25 to $50] per day,” he said. “We don’t need to stop using the forest because the ministry or an NGO says so. We have our own culture and tactics.”
(Additional reporting by Sek Odom)