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Keeping faith alive in the fight for the forest and the climate

By Andrew Bogrand
Romam Bak says she and other elders in her community in northern Cambodia are convinced the climate is changing and they can no loinger predict seasonal rains. Andrew Bogrand/Oxfam America

Leaders in northern Cambodia are committed to protecting the environment for future generations.

“Before there was a rainy season, now there is nothing,” says Romam Bak, a grandmother and community leader in the remote Cambodian village of Tang Malu. “The elders used to predict the weather, but now it seems that we cannot predict anything.”

“We are convinced that things are changing.”

Tang Malu is one of the many indigenous villages scattered across the highlands of Ratanakiri, a rural province in northeast Cambodia. Known for its abundance of forests and farm land, the province is also endowed with gold and minerals. This natural wealth is matched only by the rich cultural diversity of the Khmer Loeu, the region’s various indigenous groups.

Despite its riches, Ratanakiri is among the least-developed provinces in the country. Attempts over the past decade to integrate the province into the national and regional economy have resulted in contentious land use changes and furthered feelings of political marginalization. Combined with corporate pressure and resource exploitation, the cultural fabric and social cohesion of Ratanakiri is under threat.

To complicate matters, Cambodia’s northeastern provinces are among the most vulnerable areas to climate change across all of southeast Asia. For indigenous people in Ratanakiri, who often lack access to sufficient irrigation canals and rely on regular rainfall, changing ecosystems and longer droughts hit particularly hard. “They pray and there is no rain,” says Romam. “It is a loss of faith.”

Protecting local ecosystems

Oxfam is working to keep the faith alive by supporting partners across the Mekong river basin, such as the Highlander Association of Ratanakiri, as they strengthen water and extractive industry governance in communities like Tang Malu. Conserving land and natural resources while protecting local ecosystems is critical for the future of Ratanakiri explains Romam.

“I am concerned about the next generation,” says Chhav Vom, an activist in Peak village, south of Tang Malu. “There is no evidence that companies or the government will take care of the environment.”

Living next to a sprawling underground gold mine, Chhav can literally feel the earth move under her feet. She is worried about water contamination and structural damage from the mining operations. The digging and blasting from the mine are daily reminders about how quickly her land and culture could collapse.

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Chhav Vom, an activist in Peak village, is concerned about the next generation. Andrew Bogrand/Oxfam America

Like Romam, she is also worried about her village’s ability to thrive in a warming climate.

Despite these fears, she remains optimistic. These are not the first existential threats Chhav has stared down nor are multinational miners the first to destroy her land. Peak village still bears the scars of America’s devasting bombing raids from the Vietnam War—a reminder to her that anything can be overcome, whatever the odds.

Ratanakiri is no longer a military target but it is in the sightlines of investors and companies, who are looking to profit from the region’s natural wealth while they still can. Industrial agriculture and mining in the province are threatening livelihoods and frustrating efforts to protect the forest and the environment.

Romam and Chhav are pushing back. They have organized campaigns to stop mining and logging companies. With Oxfam’s assistance, they have organized town halls and shared their concerns with multinational companies. “Our vision is to keep our resources and culture for future generations,” says Chhav.

The two women stress the importance of solidarity. In the past decades, they have overcome war, droughts, and corporate abuse. “We are always working to help each other,” says Bak. “This is critical for us.”

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Ratanakiri is one of the least-developed provinces in Cambodia, and indigenous communities are struggling to control their forest land. Andrew Bogrand/Oxfam America

Chaav and Romam can’t defend their culture, protect the environment, and mitigate the impacts of climate change alone. With your help, Oxfam is championing resource rights, supporting active citizens like Romam and Chhav, and building solidarity among indigenous leaders who are on the front lines of our changing climate. On a warming planet with dwindling natural resources, their fight is critical for all our futures.

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