With Loss of a Forest Comes Loss of a Culture, Part 1

Deforested dustlandsGuest author, Wesley Hedden, is currently based in Cambodia. He serves as an adviser for a local NGO working on natural resource management issues and protecting indigenous cultures. This two part article is about the Phnongs in Cambodia and the work of the Phnong Center. Part 2 can be found here.

The Phnong are an ethnic minority hill tribe living in the Central Highlands of Vietnam and Mondulkiri province in southeastern Cambodia. I recently had an opportunity to visit some Phnong villages in Mondulkiri and learn about some of the development initiatives in their communities. I also caught a glimpse of the immense challenges the Phnong are facing in a new Cambodia.

Mondulkiri province is one of the most remote and sparsely populated provinces in Cambodia. The Phnong make up over fifty percent of the population in Mondulkiri. Phnong society is matriarchal, meaning that husbands move into their wives’ houses after marriage. Traditionally, the Phnong live in rounded thatch houses in villages and have small additional houses in the fields. The Phnong have a rich handicraft tradition with particular expertise in weaving and blacksmithing.

The Phnong language is in the same language family as Khmer and Vietnamese, and as such, these three ethnicities, along with many other hill tribes in the region, likely share a common ancestral heritage. The Phnong and other hill tribes have inhabited the mountainous region on the modern border of Vietnam and Cambodia since at least the time of the great Angkorian civilization (AD 9th to 15th century). For centuries they have practiced rotational agriculture and lived a traditional lifestyle, depending in large part on the vast forest resources of the region. They have been largely self-sufficient, but have been linked in varying degrees with their more powerful Vietnamese and Cambodian neighbors by trade and tribute.

Forest burning The French colonial pursuit in Indochina had relatively little impact on the remote Phnong, who continued their traditional ways of life. However, as civil war engulfed Cambodia in the 1970s, the Phnong became embroiled in the conflict. The brutality under the Khmer Rouge took particular aim at those who were not ethnically Khmer, including the Cham, Vietnamese, and Phnong. Many Phnong fled to Vietnam during this time and joined the Vietnamese in their eventual invasion and defeat of the Khmer Rouge. However, peace and relative prosperity in Cambodia have brought a new set of problems to the Phnong that both limit individuals’ opportunities and jeopardize the perpetuation of the Phnong language and traditions.

Deforestation is the first problem a visitor to Mondulkiri notices. According to the most recent edition of Cambodia’s Lonely Planet travel guide, the road coming into the provincial capital, Sen Monorom, “passes through some wild jungle…and is one of the most dramatic and beautiful roads in Cambodia.” What I saw on my ride in was dramatic, indeed, but not because of wild jungle and natural beauty. What I saw was parched brown, treeless hills stretching as far as the eye could see and a vast panorama of soil erosion and dust clouds. The contrast in a few short years was chilling. Forests are the life source of the Phnong and so many other hill tribes in mainland Southeast Asia. The function of forests goes well beyond the timber used for building homes and as a source of food in the plants and animals that inhabit forests. Forests are also essential for rotational agriculture as the nutrients in trees are converted to the soil through fire. The forests even serve a spiritual function as so many of the spirits worshiped by the Phnong reside there. Without the forests, there is little to support traditional Phnong life.

Photo 1: A dusty road extends into the deforested distance

Photo 2: The forests that still exist in Mondulkiri are disappearing rapidly

With Loss of a Forest Comes Loss of a Culture, Part 2