M’kiri Village Asked To Trade Hunting for Tourism

pech chreada district, Mondol­kiri province – The old Phnong men of Dei Ei village have seen un­­imaginable change in their 60-odd years of life.

As boys, they hunted with handmade bows and arrows; in their 20s, they first heard Khmer and French; and five years ago, the last per­son in this Pou Chrei com­mune village to wear poeng—the tra­­ditional loincloth—changed her outfit to modern clothes.

“It is difficult to get silk and weaving it takes time,” Preing Tuy, 60, explained this week. “It is easier this way.”

Two years ago, a road replaced the path connecting the village to the provincial capital of Sen Mon­orom.

And in late 2005, the Ministry of Ag­riculture’s Forestry Administra­tion, with the aid of the World-Wide Fund for Nature, inaugurated, next to the village, the Mon­dol­kiri Protected Forest that forest pro­­tection units had started pa­trolling two years earlier.

Hunting is no longer an option for the villagers in the core of the pro­­tected forest­—although Cam­bo­di­ans from out of town continue to hunt game in the new sanctuary while villagers abide by the law, they said.

“Now we cannot support our fam­­­ilies the way we used to,” Kram Yang, 62, said. “We want to pro­tect wildlife but we want development.”

They are ready to abandon their centuries-old hunting grounds if they can find another way to survive, they said. “We want land to grow cashew nuts and other crops,” Preing Tuy said. “We are ready to have farms.”

The World-Wide Fund and the government have settled on ecotourism for this lonely, mountainous part of Cambodia as a way to provide jobs and halt the relentless march of civilization through Mon­dolkiri’s jungles. The drive to Sen Monorom from lowland provinces is clouded by hectares of recently cut and burned forests and new villages.

A sign on a guesthouse in the provincial capital reads, “Ecotour­ism is Industry Without Smoke.”

Addressing the needs of the Phnong, and the more recent Cham and Khmer migrants, near the protected forest is a high priority for the government and World-Wide Fund team, said Martin von Kaschke, WWF technical adviser for the sanctuary, on Tuesday.

The 35-year-old South African conservationist and professional hunter will launch an extensive, four-year study of local needs in the next few months.

“To think that the wildlife in this forest and in the Phnom Prich Sanctuary can feed these growing communities over the long term is not sustainable,” he said.

The Forestry Administration and WWF will study setting up forest and fisheries zones designated for community use in or around the 470,000-hectare protected forest.

The private company Habitat has made an agreement with the government to build a lodge on the Sre Pok river; the government will spend its share of the profits in the local communities, von Kasch­ke said.

A preliminary analysis indicates that nearly 100 jobs can be created for guides and tourism workers once the African-style safari lodge is completed in 2009.

Granting farmland to the Phnong may not be the answer, given Mondolkiri’s susceptibility to drought, von Kaschke said.

The coming of the World-Wide Fund preserve and the end of hunting that ensued is just the latest cultural change that the Phnong village has faced.

The old men of the village said that although they now dress like lowland people, have a store with packaged goods and drive motorbikes when they can afford them, they have worked hard to preserve Phnong culture.

“When new people come to the vil­lage, we have a special wine-drinking ceremony,” said Pen Dan, 43. “We are teaching our children the ancient prayers.”

On some fronts, life has im­proved. “Now we have metal roofs where before we had only thatch,” Preing Tuy said.

When asked if they miss anything about the old days, Kram Yang spoke glowingly of the rule of then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk in the 1950s and 1960s. “Under the regime of Prince Sihanouk, our village had a health center and a school,” he said. “Since the Khmer Rouge we have had none.”

Plel Sarin, 43, said that while his generation can read and write Khmer, their young children cannot, since they had never met a teacher until recently. “Two months ago, the provincial Educa­tion Department sent us the first teacher,” he said. “The teacher teaches at one of the houses.”

The men of the village said that rather than conducting slash-and-burn rotation farming, they want deeds to permanent farms where they could grow cash crops, add­ing that promises of tourists to the area is not enough for them.

“Since the road came two years ago, we have not had any tourists stop here,” Kram Yang said. “We do not know if we will be able to guide them to see wildlife since there is so little wildlife left.”

While deer and wild boar abound, there are no more tigers in the district and elephants are becoming scarce, the men said.

The CPP first deputy commune chief for the area, Ven Sen, said a school will be built in 2006 and a request has been made for a heath center. In his opinion, villagers’ complaints about the end of hunting are not all justified.

“Some people grow enough beans to afford a motorbike,” he said. “Others are lazy and just complain.”

“We need to preserve the forest so that our children will know what the wild forest cow looks like,” continued Ven Sen. “I don’t think preservation is a heavy burden on the people.”

Preserving spirit forests and animist prayers, while reserving loincloths for ceremonies and cultural events, is the way of the future, he said. “If picking up wild things in the forest to eat and hunting is no longer a Phnong tradition, it is because we don’t want to do it anymore,” Ven Sen said.

Meas Pich, an ethnic Khmer border patrol officer guarding the entrance to the ecotourism site, said he tries to help the Phnong as best he can. “Sometimes I let them catch a small deer or a tree lizard to eat, but never anything bigger,” he said.

Von Kaschke said that for now, the government is taking a soft approach, warning locals rather than arresting them for hunting on protected lands. The authorities, however, have taken to trial two serious cases—one involving the killing of Mekong dolphins with a grenade, and the other involving elephant poaching.

The hope of those setting up the protected forest, von Kaschke said, is to follow the South African model—massive increases in rare species such as vulture, crocodile, tiger, elephant and four types of wild cow—by having 24-hour, on-site management and the tourism to pay for it.

“Mondolkiri has incredible po­tential; it could become Cambo­dia’s Kruger National Park,” he said referring to South Africa’s vast game reserve.

But involving the local community is crucial, von Kaschke said. “In this model, the communities have ownership of the park.”

Villagers said that protecting forests is a central Phnong cultural belief, though not their only priority.

“You may be fed up with cities with tall buildings, but I have lived off the forest all my life and I am fed up with that,” Kram Yang said. “I want change.”




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