[This story was originally published September 14, 2012]
O’Yadaw district, Ratanakkiri province – In the beginning, the Jarai lived as one in the forested foothills on at the southern tip of the Anamite Cordillera. At that time, before cartographers and borders, the beloved daughter of a powerful Jarai chief died unexpectedly.
Stricken with grief, the distraught chief sacrificed water buffaloes, pigs, and all sorts of farm animal to mark his daughter’s death. But his sadness was unfathomable, and in his desire to honor his daughter’s passing he ordered an even greater blood sacrifice: Wild deer that roamed the forest were trapped and killed for the funeral ceremony.
The spirits of the mountains and rivers were so enraged by the sacrifice of the forest deer that they made the earth shake; Jarai longhouses collapsed; trees uprooted and great swathes of the land were upturned and the Jarai were scattered.
According to the legend, the Jarai have remained separated ever since – one community located in northeastern Cambodia and their sister communities in neighboring Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
“There is no one else who has ever lived here but the Jarai,” said Sui Hon, 75, said as he ended the story of the unholy sacrifice that split apart his people.
Anthropologists call Mr. Hon’s story an origin myth: Part metaphorical and part historical, such myths contain deeply buried meanings for a society.
The message in the Jarai story is not about a mythical past, Mr. Hon said. It could be the future for his community in Ratanakkiri province’s Lum village, where agro-industry companies have been given ownership of vast tracts of forest that the Jarai have long called home.
They survived the first scattering of their tribe, but they are unlikely to survive the second, Mr. Hon warned.
“We are worried about losing our piece of land. If our swidden farming stops, our way of life stops too,” he said in an interview at the communal meeting hall in Lum village.
“We cannot adapt to the Khmer modernity.”
Ratanakkiri was once covered by dense forests, and O’Yadaw district in the eastern portion of this northeastern province was one of the most remote places as Cambodian emerged from decades of war in the 1990s. Forest still encroached on the outskirts of tiny Banlung town a little over 10 years ago. Access to the province could take days by road from Phnom Penh, while most arrived by twin-propeller Antanov-24 planes that scattered stray dogs and unwatched cows as the Russian-made aircrafts bumped to a landing on the red-earth runway in the center of the provincial capital a couple of times per week.
A lot has changed in the province in recent years as roads have been paved, making travel between Phnom Penh fast and affordable.
Traveling along the new roads have been people in search of work, families in search of opportunities, and the companies of the powerful seeking to make fortunes from the land with cash-crop plantations.
Once a majority ethnic minority province where Tampoun, Jarai and Kreung speakers outnumbered the Khmer, Ratanakkiri is now one of the country’s fastest growing provinces where the inhabitants of lowland provinces, particularly Kompong Cham, Svay Rieng and Prey Veng, are flocking in search of a better future.
“Most of the people here are from Takeo and Kompong Cham,” said Ly Da, 20, who moved to Banlung three years ago from Prey Veng province, and now sells fruit near the main market.
“There is not much development in Prey Veng. If we compare to Prey Veng: it’s six months dry and six months wet, but here we can grow crops in every season,” Ms. Da said of the cooler up-country climate.
Business has been good since she moved here, she says, explaining that there is a ready market for food, clothes and other services among Banlung City’s new Khmer migrants.
The province’s hilltribes have had to adapt to the changes, Ms. Da admits, adding that many have already sold their land to the newcomers.
“In the past the hilltribe people were strict about their traditions, but now they adapt to the Khmer living style,” she said.
“They sold their land to the Khmer. If they did not, they would not have anything.”
In the wet season, the red dirt roads between Banlung and O’Yadaw district, a distance of some 50 kilometers, made the journey a daylong adventure until just a few years ago. Asphalt has now tamed the route, and the forests that once dominated in this eastern district have disappeared. Rubber, cassava and other crops have replaced hilltribe villages and their forest ‘chamkar’ (garden) farms.
In Lum village, one of the remaining forest patches that hugs the Vietnamese border in Paknhai commune, the Jarai residents had watched as cleared land crept ever closer.
Patches of red paint sprayed on the trunks of trees earlier this year was the first sign that plans were being made for Lum village’s land, said Sui H’vinh, 36. Then blue and yellow-colored earth excavators and bulldozers, Caterpillars and Komatsus, moved into the area in June. In a matter of days the machines had begun to flatten the forest in the Komar River valley several kilometers from the center of Lum village, Mr. H’vinh said.
The residents of Lum village, which has a population of 1,290 people, were told nothing and knew nothing about the company felling their forest, but they decide to do something, Mr. H’vinh explained. A group of 30 villagers confronted the workers operating the mechanical earthmovers. Though the meeting in the forest was peaceful, the workers were under no illusions that they had little choice but to stop their clear cutting.
“We didn’t know anything until villagers saw red paint marked on trees and then they were bulldozed,” Mr. H’vinh said.
“This village was okay. Now, since the company started work we are really worried… We only have this area. No other area.”
During a visit to the forest in July, the workers and their heavy machinery were camped and idle on an adjacent hill from where the Jarai had decided to draw a line in the destruction. The valley between the Jarai’s remaining forests and the workers’ blue tarpaulin tents looked as though a huge meteor had fallen from space and gouged a path through the valley. Broken in mid-trunk, the tall trees resembled broken toothpicks and logs, half sawn into strips of timber, lay discarded on a muddy hillside rutted with steel caterpillar tracks.
Standing in the tree-lined shade on the edge of the flattened forest, Mr. H’vinh told of how the machines and pulled back and the clearing cutting had ceased since the villagers protested, though the company’s workers had filed police complaints alleging that they had been intimidated by the locals. For their part, the Lum villagers lodged their own protests with commune, district and provincial official demanding to know how their ancestral land had now wound up the property of a private company – whose name they did not even officially know. No one at any of the local administrative levels had yet responded officially to their letters seeking to know more about the future of their land, Mr. H’vinh said in July.
“It seems we don’t have the right to complain or protest,” he said.
“There are a lot of small streams here where we can fish and there are trees that we can cut to make houses. We are afraid that the company will take everything we depend on for our lives,” Mr. H’vinh said.
Giving up the forest means giving up their rotational farming, Mr. H’vinh said, adding that the Jarai do not want to become laborers for someone else or shopkeepers. It is better to grow crops and sell any excess for profit, he said.
“We are ethnic people. We find it very hard to make a living selling groceries and doing business,” he said. “We have seen, in this village, that those who work as laborers for other people they do not prosper,” he added. “We grow crops and sell them and that makes our living conditions better than theirs.”
Even before the heavy machinery crested the hills in Komar River valley, Sui H’lin, 50, the chief of Lum village, had asked provincial officials to recognize his community’s land with an official communal title. He never received a response.
When the forest clearing began in June, Mr. H’lin went to alert the chief of Paknhai commune, who was as mystified as the village chief. The commune chief then went to the chief of O’Yadaw district, who did know that two companies, Try Pheap and Men Sarun Co, had concessions on what Lum villagers had long considered their land. The district officials knew, but they didn’t tell anyone else, Mr. H’Lin said.
Mr. H’lin also discovered that a special task force, consisting of the provincial departments of agriculture, the environment, forestry administration and land management had also known about the two companies, and had said their concessions would not affect local villagers.
“They could say this village is not affected because they didn’t come to see me or the village,” an exasperated Mr. H’lin said, sitting at a table in his modest wooden home in the center of Lum village in July.
Mr. H’lin ducked into his bedroom to grab a pile of hand-written documents, letters and petitions he had penned in ink asking provincial authorities to respect the Jarai’s land in Lum: 800 hectares of communal farmland and 12 hectares of land for the community’s spirit forest. He sent his request a second time on June 11, around the time of the first protest, and then a third time on June 27.
“I am still waiting for a response,” Mr. H’lin said.
“Despite having motorbikes or cars, we cannot live without the forest and spirit forest,” Mr. H’lin said. ”Please have a pity upon the rocks and the spirit forest we live with.”
Paknhai commune chief Rocham H’lech confirmed that the bulldozers of the concession company came without giving any notice to the local authorities. The bulldozing only stopped after the protest by Lum villagers, and that provincial authorities have now decided to measure how much of Lum villagers’ farmland falls within the already-granted concessions.
Officials at Try Pheap and Men Sarun Co. could not be reached for comment.
Pen Bonnar, coordinator of human rights group Adhoc in Ratanakkiri, said there are around 100 land dispute cases ongoing in the province between local communities and powerful individuals and companies. Not one of these cases has yet been solved, or will probably ever be, Mr. Bonnar said.
Last year alone, the government granted 28 economic land concessions, measuring about 223,370 hectares, in Ratanakkiri province to companies to grow rubber and other crops, according to a report by Adhoc.
“There will be a lot of impacts,” Mr. Bonnar said of the grab for land in the province.
“For the short term it is less impact, but in five years there will be a huge impact because they have small pieces of land now. In the future, I foresee that [the indigenous minorities] would be poorer.”
Giving vast tracts of the country to private companies, according to the government’s rationale, was intended to develop the industrial agricultural sector as the country moved from a centrally planned economy to the free market in the early 1990s.
“The major goal of this opening [of land concessions] is to provide free (non use) land for agricultural and agro-industrial plantation, and processing for export, which is expected by the government to create the jobs and generate income for the people living in the rural area,” states the 2005 sub-decree governing the sector.
In theory, concessions appear reasonable on paper: they would promote small and large investment in agriculture, increase employment in rural areas, improve livelihoods, ensure the appropriate management of the country’s natural resources, and generate revenue for the state at the provincial and communal level “through economic land use fees, taxation and related services charges.”
According to the sub-decree, among other criteria, economic land concessions may only be granted, when “environmental and social impact assessments have been completed with respect to the land use and development plan for economic land concession projects.”
And, they may only be granted on “land for which there have been public consultations, with regard to economic land concession projects or proposals, with territorial authorities and residents of the locality.”
The proof of their value to the country, according to the sub-decree’s section on evaluating economic land concession proposals, “shall be based on the following criteria… Creation of increasing employment; Promotion of living standards of the people; Perpetual environmental protection and natural resources management; Avoidance or minimizing of adverse social impacts.”
But based on the experiences of the ordinary farmers from Lum village, all the way up to the U.N. special envoy on human rights to Cambodia, Surya Subedi, the practice of land concessions is at grave variance with the theory.
“With regards to the impact of economic land concession on people’s rights, the Special Rapporteur is of the view that the human cost of such concessions has been high. The absence, in many instances, of proper consultation and negotiation with the people affected when granting such concessions has been a major concern,” Mr. Subedi wrote in his official report in July.
Mr. Subedi, however, also welcomed in his report Mr. Hun Sen’s decision earlier this year to halt the granting of new concessions and the review of existing concessions too.
It is also not known how much money economic land concessions have raised for state coffers, and few government officials seem to know where to obtain such information.
“I don’t know anything about it,” said Chea Peng Chheang, secretary of state at the Ministry of Finance.
Contacted last week, Paknhai commune chief Rocham H’lech said that he had just been informed that the volunteer students dispatched by Mr. Hun Sen to resolve disputes between communities and land concessions are slated to visit Lum village in November.
Rubber trees have already been planted on the cleared forest in the Komar valley, though the heavy machinery has not cleared any further land. Although unhappy with the planting of the rubber, residents of Lum say they are not going to demonstrate any further until the students arrive to measure the land.
“Now we are waiting for the volunteer students,” Mr. H’lech said. Gordon Paterson, who has worked with indigenous communities in Ratanakkiri since the mid-1990s, said the loss of land has led to “a general sense of hopelessness” for hilltribe communities.
“People feel like they are not in control of their own future, their destiny,” Mr. Paterson said.
“On the one hand is the Land Law, so they do have right. But on the other they see those rights being denied,” he said.
While the official development vision for northeastern Cambodia appears focused on large-scale agro-industry companies, such a model fails to recognize the value of the indigenous people and their contribution to Cambodian society and the economy.
In terms of agriculture production, many indigenous communities already produce a large array of cash crops—cashews, cassava, soybean—and many are starting to grow rubber in their forest farms.
Rather than displacing the communities from their land to give to private companies, the government could mobilize the existing human and natural resources in Ratanakkiri, and with minimal input, could generate income for the nation and the communities themselves through agricultural production.
Indigenous communities “have the wherewithal to develop their land,” Mr. Paterson said, noting that local communities produce a diversity of products that the market needs, and their farming methods are a lot less harmful to the environment in terms of pesticide use and forest protection.
“Industrialized mono-culture is obviously bad for the environment,” he said, adding, “It is better when people are on their own land.”
“The population is a reason for developing a nation. Why not invest in that population?” Mr. Paterson asked, noting that the current thinking would seem to view local communities in rural areas as “an obstruction instead of a resource.”
Productive smallholdings would also preserve the tourist potential of Ratanakkiri for visitors in terms of the natural environment—Who would want to visit an industrialized rubber plantation? Mr. Paterson asks.
Historically, the indigenous communities of the northeast have “served the country well,” and their culture and way of life enriches Cambodia. However, what is taking place now in the province is unlike anything that has happened to them before, Mr. Paterson said.
“The changes happening around them now are more far reaching than in the past, Pol Pot included. The potential impact is far more reaching,” he said.
In Lum village, Mr. Hon, the 75-year-old who recounted the Jarai’s creation myth, said the issue is about more than even land. It is about the spirit of the province and the Jarai people.
“The spirits will be very furious if there is no forest left because they won’t have a place to live,” Mr. Hon. “It would be like a human whose house has been broken down.”