As Province Develops, Ratanakkiri’s Hill Tribes Face Lifestyle Changes
ratanakkiri province, tuy village – A short muddy driveway links indigenous villagers here to traffic trickling along the nearby road from the provincial capital toward Vietnam. Their stilt houses bulge conspicuously from one side of the road like the sun peering over the horizon.
When the road was first built, it split Tuy’s land in half. But the villagers still owned the land straddling the road, until a stranger they know only as “eyeglasses man” came walking up the driveway one day.
“‘Eyeglasses man’ gave some of us salt and rice and money to clear the trees on that side of the road,” said deputy village chief Preng Try, sitting on the bamboo floor of one of the houses about 30 meters from the road. “Then we were told that we can not live on the land anymore because it belongs to ‘eyeglasses man.’”
In recent years, such savvy land hunters have heavily preyed on the land where indigenous people live along the roads of Ratanakkiri. Villages such as Tuy have seen once tightly-guarded communal plots slip quietly into the hands of lowland Khmers, refugees and immigrants who offer a small amount of much-needed food or currency in exchange for many hectares of property. But land-rights advocates have made some progress in their fight to arm many local villages with education and stronger legal protection.
“Before, my villagers were ignorant people,” Preng Try said. “But now they know. Next time, I would not give land to ‘eyeglasses man.’”
Despite the success of the roads, some advocates fear they may become a more subtle and savvy way of integrating indigenous villagers’ land into the market economy. Officials are building more roads deep into hill-tribe territory and prodding villagers to abandon traditional living patterns in favor of roadside living.
The creation of roads thrusts the hilltribes onto a perilous junction: Some say the roads will bring much needed services, like health, education and access to local markets. Others fear that, without further protections, Cambodia’s last remaining indigenous populations will see their traditional villages torn apart.
War and hostile terrain in the northeastern corner of Cambodia have for centuries largely insulated the country’s scarce indigenous cultures from the developing world around them. Many of the villages in Ratanakkiri have held onto their traditional structure—with communal agricultural lands fanning out behind circular villages. They practice a centuries-old technique of crop rotation in the fields, working only a part of their land each year while allowing the other parts to rest.
But the insular existence of the region’s people has also contributed to the poor state of health and education in the area, where indigenous people make up around 65 percent of the province’s population.
The literacy rate in Ratanakkiri is less than 25 percent, and less than 5 percent of the population finishes primary school, according to a report on the health and education needs of ethnic minorities in the area conducted by the Asian Development Bank. Ratanakkiri has one hospital, and villagers complained that the quality of care they receive after trekking to the hospital often depends on their ability to pay.
With such lethargy in education and health-services development, the idea of more roads is an easy sell to many of the villagers in Ratanakkiri. Provincial Governor Kham Khoeun estimated that the Public Works Department will finish building more than 200 km of roads linking districts together, as well as the districts to the national road by next year. He also said they would upgrade National Road 78 that links Ratanakkiri to Stung Treng, Kratie and Kompong Cham provinces, and that NGOs plan to build more roads linking villages together.
“The road is the first priority to develop indigenous people’s living standard,” said Kham Khoeun. “It will bring them together with the rest of society.”
But some land-rights advocates are wary of building more roads without first providing a solid legal structure to protect land that already belongs to indigenous villagers.
In recent years, the same growing climate of peace that has settled over much of Cambodia has come to Ratanakkiri, and with it a faint urban pulse has surfaced in its provincial center of Banlung, drawing a steady flow of businessmen, immigrants, refugees and lowland Cambodians.
With the population of the region beginning to skyrocket, and land prices in the city on the rise, newcomers and Banlung residents are looking to land outside the city to start cash-crop plantations and other forms of development.
This is also the area, however, where the majority of the indigenous villagers in the region live. It’s along the muddy roads that criss-cross Ratanakkiri’s land where indigenous villagers first brush shoulders with their new neighbors. And along these same roads, far from public scrutiny, new arrivals discover their free market view of the land clashes with the hilltribes’ communal way of living on it.
“Roads really open [the] market economy,” said John McAndrew, Integrated Community Development adviser with International Cooperation for Development and Solidarity (CIDSE). “From trading also comes land sales. And what comes from that can be really debilitating.”
Land pressures along National Road 78 going to Stung Treng, Kratie and Vietnam have already resulted in forceful land grabs, as well as the negotiating of land sales for little more than a few dollars, some rice or sugar. A drive on the national road reveals extensive deforestation and land clearing for cash crop plantations.
In a study of two ethnic Tampuan villages in Ratanakkiri province, McAndrew also found that villages more accessible by roads faced increased pressure for land sales, changing local patterns of land management and attitudes toward governing structures.
“In more remote villages, the villagers could negotiate some of the attempted land encroachments,” McAndrew said. “Everyone was still working together because the pressure to sell land wasn’t so strong.”
But in less-isolated villages, he said, “people were selling land without talking to the village chief, and even the village chief was selling.”
In his report “Indigenous Adaptation to a Rapidly Changing Economy,” McAndrew found that many of the land sales occur on land that is fallow under the crop rotation system. Although the sales may not have short term consequences on living patterns, this may change in coming years if villagers have to re-use smaller and smaller land areas—which would decrease productivity—or cut into new forest land.
“Until they can have control over resources, it’s difficult to deal with the market economy,” McAndrew said.
A desire to prevent the fast-moving market economy from swallowing the villagers is why land-rights advocates fought for recognition of communal land rights in the pending land law, attempting to give indigenous people time to see long-term benefits of land development, instead of giving them each a land entitlement that could be quickly sold for cash or food.
But some advocates say that officials left a loophole allowing for more road building. They point to a provision that was added in the land law stating that “military or government authorities can use public lands if it’s in the general interest.” Advocates are concerned this could also mean more roads.
Bou Tong, of Ratanakkiri, who is active in shaping the pending land law, refused to comment.
Advocates also point to a recent push by government officials, commune, district and village heads and some development organizations to get villagers to live next to the roads, abandoning their entirely communal way of land use for a system that partially uses individual land entitlements along the byways.
This happened to 80-year-old Kampring Chalik’s Prov village in Ta Ong commune.
“Our villages used to be in a circle,” he said. “But the commune chief told us to build in a straight line along the road. I like this way better. It’s the way developed villages do it.”
Prov Village was rearranged three years ago along the road, a wooden fence separating the houses’ front yards from the muddy corridor. Kampring Chalik said he was told by a local development organization it was the way other developing villages were organizing their houses and the new structure would further them on the road to better living.
“I’m happy to see this development and the situation changing in the village,” he said. “When I was young, I never studied. I would just drink and dance with my friends.”
But like some of the other villagers, Kampring Chalik is not exactly certain how living in straight lines along a road will help his village right now.
The majority of indigenous villagers, with baskets full of food items slung across their backs, walk to the markets to sell their goods. The trip can take a full day, getting to the market and back. Few of the indigenous villagers have the money for cars or motorbikes.
But officials like the governor say the roads will bring services to them.
“The road is very important for my people,” Kham Khoeun said. “The children will be able to go to school to get a better education, and the patients will be able to go to the hospital or the ambulance will be able to get to the remote villages to pick them up.”
But others say the services just aren’t there yet to merit road building.
“First they need something to eat for the year and then roads,” said Min Muny, provincial program manager for the UN group Carere. “The roads should come later, but first the services.
“The roads are gold to developers,” he said. “But they’re pretty worthless to others until they have services.”
Some of the people supporting the new roads are also proposing a new way to use the land around the roads. Some government officials, developers and commune and district chiefs have already been promoting the idea of individual land entitlements for the indigenous community.
The governor supports the idea of individual plots of land alongside the roads for housing, with individual plots in the back for agriculture.
“Indigenous people usually get away from the road so they can have rotating farms,” Kham Khoeun said. “Now we want to teach them to grow plantations in their backyard.”
Some NGOs say this shift from communal to individual land holding will result in land sales and is only a more subtle way for land developers to achieve their goal.
“Pushing the villagers to live along roads will break their communal will, their communal consciousness,” said a representative of Non-Timber Forest Products, an environmental organization in Ratanakkiri. “Once you break this communal consciousness, the land is up for grabs.”
NTFP supports an idea that permits individual land use but does not allow people to sell their land. They want villagers to see the long-term benefits of land development, before selling their land because they were offered more money than they’ve ever seen before.
“My plan isn’t an obstacle to development, but allows for development at a rational, controllable pace that will keep land under control of the local people,” the representative said. “It doesn’t mean developers can’t develop, it just means that the villages can benefit instead of being disenfranchised from the process.”