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The Struggle to Preserve Indigenous Culture in Mondulkiri

Visitors view exhibited photos portraying the livelihood of indigenous people in Ratanakiri province.
Visitors view exhibited photos portraying the livelihood of indigenous people in Ratanakiri province.

[Editors note: Development worker Bill Herod was one of the first activists from the United States to start working in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. He began visiting the country in 1980, the year after the communist movements catastrophic rule came to an end. Having visited regularly throughout the 1980s, Mr. Herod finally moved to the country in 1994, and has spent the past eight years living and working in Mondulkiri province. During a visit to the capital in late June, Mr. Herod spoke to VOA Khmer reporter Ser Sayana about his efforts to preserve ethnic minority cultures and sow the seeds for sustainable development in the mountainous province.]

We know that you are a peace activist and have spent a lot of time in Cambodia. Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself?

I’m a development worker, and I started working in development in Vietnam in the 1960s. I worked there during the war, and I had some responsibilities. I was based in Washington, D.C. but with responsibilities for some work in Vietnam and Cambodia. I started to come to Cambodia in 1980 just after the Khmer Rouge time. I came twice a year throughout the ’80s, and then I moved to Cambodia in 1994. I have worked on a number of different activities with NGOs in Cambodia. Then, eight years ago, I moved to Mondulkiri, and I have been working on programs in supporting indigenous people in Mondulkiri since then.

During eight years in Mondulkiri, what progress have you seen in the province?

There’s been a lot of progress by Western standards in terms of transportation, telecommunications, banking and so forth. But these positive developments don’t have much positive impact for the indigenous people. The road, for example, has been greatly improved. It used to take us all day to get to Mondulkiri from Phnom Penh—10 or 12 or even 14 hours back then. Now, it’s less than five hours to go to Mondulkiri. But the improved transportation is valued [for] commerce in Cambodia. It means that the raw materials from Cambodia can be taken out of Cambodia, mostly to Vietnam. And then consumer items can be brought in. So it’s not much of an advantage; and, in fact, in some cases, it is a disadvantage to the indigenous people of Mondulkiri. Also the growth of the city, of the provincial town, Sen Monorom, that again is an advantage to outside investors who have built guest houses and restaurants, and so forth. For the tourist trade, it has very little, if any, positive impact on the indigenous people.

Why doesnt this development have positive impacts for indigenous people?

Well, the indigenous people live in rural villages outside of Sen Monorom. So the improved communication and transportation network through the provincial city really bypasses them. It doesn’t help them in getting their products to market. Every morning, you still see indigenous people carrying vegetables in baskets as they walk along the roadway ready to take their produce to market. So it hasn’t been much help to them. Also, Mondulkiri still has the highest rate of infant mortality, the lowest literacy rate in Cambodia. There have been some improvements in health care and education, but very modest.

What about the local authorities or other institution who might have an impact? What action could they take?

I have talked with senior provincial officials about this at some length. It’s a matter of world view of culture. We had the same thing in the United States in dealing with the Native American population. The notion—one might even call it the policy—of the Cambodian government is that the indigenous people should either go away—that is, die off—or become Khmerized, or become full participants in the Khmer community. For example, traditionally, Pnorng people practice rotational agriculture where they would farm a piece of land for a few years and then go to another piece of land for a few years, and then another. Now Cambodians want the Pnorng people to just stay in one place and farm in one place. Well, that’s a big change. For one thing, it’s not really good agriculture. The rotational agriculture is a better method of agriculture. Also if they stay in one place for many years, they’re going to wear out the land and also since they get anything they need from the jungle, they are going to reduce the supply. They take what they need for construction materials, medicine, and food from the jungle. So if they can move to a new area for a few years, then it’s more bountiful. So these are the significant problems that they face. Some Khmer officials understand this, but although the Cambodian constitution protects indigenous lands in practice, then lands are simply being taken away from the indigenous people and sold to companies, some foreign companies for rubber plantations or cashew plantations or cassava plantations or whatever. Then the Pnorng people are forced to move into areas that may not be as good for agriculture as they were farming before.

So the indigenous people dont have land titles? How was the land taken from them?

Right, well that’s a big conflict because the Cambodian government now is trying to issue land titles. And that requires the Pnorng individual, Pnorng families to declare that they own a piece of land. Traditionally, the Pnorng did not have any concept of private ownership. So the whole community regarded all of the land that they farmed as theirs. Often I have been in Pnorng villages, and I have asked them what are the boundaries of the village. And they would just point to the horizon, and say, well, as far as you can see any direction, that is the boundary of the village. Of course, that doesn’t work very well for land titles. So the government is now encouraging Pnorng people to declare ownership of particular pieces of land. But that causes friction because some members of the community think that the whole village should declare ownership of a large area. And some individual members think that individuals should declare ownership of their own pieces of land. So it’s caused some confusion and some conflicts between the villagers.

How is education affecting the changes going on there?

Just in the last few years, we are seeing Pnorng young people graduate from college, and return to the province. The numbers are very small right now, but we have more coming. This year we have graduated two students in law, by which I mean public policy. So they’ll be working in land rights, and human rights, and with NGOs. We’ve also got students graduating in information technology and in tourism. So they’ll be able to work in tourist development in Mondulkiri. Not, I hope, working as waiters and receptionists for foreign owners, but managing their own Pnorng businesses.

Do they speak their own language also?

Yes, Pnorng have their own distinct language which is quite different from Khmer. Most of the young people who live near the provincial capital also speak Khmer. The students that we are working with speak Pnorng, Khmer and English.

And the older people?

Older people, not so much Khmer. And remember that the Pnorng people do not have a written language. Although in the last few years, they have started to write using khmer script, but there is no body of literature. So older Pnorng may not speak, read or write Khmer.

So some younger Pnorng people have education, but what happens to the older generation who dont have a lot of land anymore?

Right, that’s a big problem, and there is a lot of despair, hopelessness, among older people because they’ve really lost their lifestyle, their traditions in last 10 years or so. They’ve lost their land. They are losing their culture. They see the young people moving away into Western styles. Young Pnorng are now building Khmer-style houses rather than traditional Pnorng houses. I’ve worked daily with a number of Pnorng young people, and I would often check their language. I would pick some object and ask what it’s called in Pnorng. Often they would give me a word. And I would say that’s Khmer, and they would say, “Well yeah, I don’t remember how to say it in Pnorng. I would have to ask my grandmother.” So it’s slipping more quickly than they realize.

Does any institution work to preserve the Pnorng language?

Sure, it would be good. And we’ve experimented with ways. For example, we had handicraft shops in Sen Monorom where we would sell crafts to tourists. Well, the idea was to bring in some income, supplementary income for people in the villages, but also the notion was to keep alive the craft. So rather than set up a school to teach Pnorng young people how to weave, we’ve provided an incentive for the mothers to weave and make money, and then the mothers taught the daughters in the household to weave. That’s a much better way to transmit the culture than to try to institutionalize it.

Do you see any progress on the preservation of this culture and tradition?

We hope so, and it’s possible. It’s going to take the efforts of a number of people, and of course it will take generations. That’s why I was so excited to see mothers teach their daughters. And when we managed a boarding school in Sen Monorom for several years, one thing we did was to bring in village elders to tell stories and sing songs to the young people. And the young people were quite interested in it and asked a lot of questions because they were already beginning to lose their culture.

How much effort is put into this? Is there any effort from other organizations?

I’m afraid I don’t see much effort. There are a few small NGOs that worked at this, and some interested researchers who sometimes come in and document, for example, collect stories and songs and so forth. But on a very small scale. I’d like to see the tourist industry understand how valuable this is. I would like to see the tourist industry invest money into museums or something to help this. But we don’t see that happening yet.

Do you have any suggestions or recommendations for this?

The continued emphasis on education is important. I would like to see primary education increase, so that more people have a lot of access to education and of course health care. But in terms of cultural preservation, bilingual education, they have experimented with bilingual education, but more needs to be done so that children who grow up in Phorng homes speak in Pnorng. When they go to school, school is in Khmer—that’s years—but they need teaching assistants who speak both khmer and Pnorng to help the children.

With your experience from eight years in Mondulkiri, can you reflect on the the progress of your work there?

Well, I think it’s been exciting to see the number of young people finish school and go on to college and then return to Mondulkiri, because they will be able to have a really positive impact in Mondulkiri after they’ve gotten education. When we started sending people to school in Phnom Penh, there was some concern that after they went to Phnom Penh, they would stay there and wouldn’t return to Mondulkiri. But that hasn’t happened. Most of the students, all of the Pnorng students that we have worked with, have either returned to Mondulkiri after graduation or continued to be involved in the human rights activities with the international development agencies.

Were there any obstacles during these eight years?

Well, of course. First, the obstacle posed by the big companies and the government support for the big companies is a problem. If the big companies want land that belonged to be Pnorng, the government seems willing and able to find ways to move the Pnorng away from their land and sell their land to the company. That’s really unfortunate. Of course, illegal logging goes on day and night in Mondulkiri. I talked to trekking guides and trackers who go into the deep jungle. They are kept awake at night by the sound of chainsaws in the forest. The illegal logging also creates logging tracks through the jungle, which interfere with the natural habitat of wildlife. So Mondulkiri is losing its wildlife. This is something we sometimes have some difficulty talking with officials about. The officials looked at the map and said this whole area is a protected area, so it can’t be developed. We say: yeah, but there are chainsaw in there, and there are logging trucks going through there all different directions day and night. So the wild animals out there, the area that they have free—there are elephants in the jungle, maybe 300 elephants in the jungle in Mondulkiri, they have a smaller and smaller area where they can roam freely. So it’s a big problem. And now the government is talking about building a road from Sen Monorom across to Vietnam, joining the road to Da Lat. That would cut through the forest and further deteriorate the natural habitat of wildlife. We would like the Cambodian people to understand that the protected areas in Mondulkiri and elsewhere in Cambodia—the Cardamom Mountains and so forth—these are natural resources which are worth a lot. They’re worth money, but they’re also natural resources for the environment and really the health of the people in Cambodia, and to cut down the forest and sell the lumber, ship the lumber out of Cambodia does a great disservice to the people today and to future generations, but it’s difficult to make that point.