Ratanakiri is the homeland of indigenous groups such as Tampouan, Kreung, Jarai, Brao, Kavet, Kachak, Lum. Indigenous people used to live in small communities, deriving their livelihood from the vast forestlands covering the province.
Since peace and security were restored in Cambodia, Ratanakiri ceased to be an isolated province of forests and rivers, inhabited by indigenous people. But with progress, development and modernity have arrived also large land concessions and huge commercial plantations, mining and hydroelectric power projects, massive migration of outsiders and an aggressive land market: all craving for indigenous land and forests. Life has become difficult for indigenous people.
The problems are closely interlinked.
- Traditionally discriminated against in Cambodian society, Highlanders’ way of life is eroding. The surrounding deforestation is threatening the Highlanders’ ways of life. Home to the most biologically diverse lowland tropical rainforest in South East Asia, Ratanakiri stores vast amounts of rare tropical hardwoods. The reduction of primary rainforest has reduced habitats for endangered fauna and flora in this biodiversity sink.
- The consequent discovery of gems, rare tropical hardwoods and fertile land have led to a “Gold Rush” phenomenon. Foreign based commercial logging and mining companies have moved in; purchasing large forest tracts legally and illegally. Attracted by potential job opportunities, economic migrants slowly and steadily arrived. As the population grew, this put pressure on the existing infrastructure. The need for more housing led to further logging. The need for water meant that watercourses were diverted for mining and water consumption. As a result, waterways have become more polluted by human and commercial activities upstream. To date, poor mining logging and agricultural practices continue to pollute waterways and increase soil infertility.
- The widening of the economic gap between Highlanders and Newcomers – traditionally reliant on a system of bartering or exchange, Highlanders’ standards of living have fallen below that of the Newcomers. A Participatory Learning in Action (PLA) exercise identified that target communities are composed of women headed households, landless farmers and poor indigenous groups as well as farming communities involved in upland rice, cashew crop, growing traditional crops (vegetable, animal raising (chicken, pig, cow), wild vegetable gathering. Medical care, water, sanitation, along with education (adult illiteracy is high), agricultural support and food security are very critically needed as priorities in those target communalities. Crop failures in these districts make life even more difficult.