Dedicated radio program listeners are taking steps to protect fragile forest lands in northern Cambodia.
On a sunny, windy, cool Monday morning I drive in to a village called Lung Kung, past a stream next to a side road where ethnic Tompoun people are filling up water containers, and bathing. Trucks rumble past, and motorbikes whip along the dusty road.
All around are plantations, mostly rubber and cassava. The forests here in northern Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province are nearly gone, but the people in Lung Kung are desperately holding on to a few small woods where they worship, bury the deceased, and gather fruit and nuts and wood.
“New people are coming to the area and buying land from indigenous people, and clearing the forest, says Nam Ei Dim, a 31-year-old farmer. “This is our main concern.”
Where investors from the south and other countries see trees to be cleared to make way for cash crops, the Tompoun and numerous other indigenous people here see their culture, their past, and the future of their people.
Dim and others say land in Ratanakiri is cheap for outsiders. Local people who can prove individual ownership of land can just sell it, but they may not be aware of its fair value, and buyers take advantage of them. “Sometimes we sell one hectare [about 2.45 acres] of land but the buyer then clears additional forest areas around it,” one man tells us. “Indigenous people don’t know the laws and don’t complain because the buyers have a lot of money.”
Another man says a relative of his needed to buy a water buffalo to make an offering to his ancestors, so he sold five hectares of land – only to see the buyer clear seven.
In other parts of Ratanakiri, the government and companies simply grab communal land areas and lease them to investors without any consultation or compensation for indigenous people. This cuts in to forests that indigenous communities have used for centuries, but for which they may lack communal land title.
Airwaves bring new information
Dim says people in Lung Kung are more aware of the problems related to the disappearing forest and indigenous land rights since he and about 10 others started a club that gathers weekly to listen to radio programs produced by Oxfam’s partner Media One in Phnom Penh. Many of the broadcasts are in local languages, and are about protecting natural resources, like forests and rivers.
One program in particular made a big impression on the group: it was called “Land is life for indigenous people” and according to Dim it made people realize they need to be more active to protect what is left of their forest land. He says when the local commune chief heard it, he started to actively discourage people from selling land. “Now we know that the buyers take advantage of the indigenous community members,” Dim explains. “If we had the radio before, we would not have sold our land.”
One young man in the club named Phoy Yab, a 30-year-old farmer in the village, had a strong reaction to the program. “After hearing it I was motivated to protect the forest. I had an idea to demarcate the forest, map the boundary. I also shared what I learned in the radio program with others to teach them, and get their support.”
Yab met with the commune chief, and suggested they restart a village committee to protect their remaining forest. “He gathered people together and explained that the land and forest are important to the next generation,” Yab says, “and that if we don’t protect it we will lose our lands and forest for our children.”
The protected forest is just outside town. Yab takes us there, bounding down the dirt road on a motor bike, and up a steep trail past a gold-domed temple where saffron-robed monks wave to us. The forest is on a short ridge above the cassava fields, just a narrow, seven-hectare (about 18 acres) strip of woods.
Yab and his friends show us medicinal plants along the trail, and there are huge hardwood trees soaring into the sky. Through the trees on either side are the agricultural fields, stretching out to the horizon. Yab says they patrol here several times a week, even at night sometimes. “If we encounter any illegal activity here, we will report it to the authorities and arrest that person,” he says.
“People need to know”
In a nearby village called Yem, Romas Oeun is a reporter for Media One who contributes to the kinds of programs Yem and Dim in Lung Kung are hearing. On the day I meet Oeun, he is following up on a story about public health, interviewing an ill elderly woman in their native Tompoun language. He says most indigenous people in Ratanakiri don’t know they have the right to health care at area hospitals. He says more and more people in Yem are now seeking health care, and his stories about the rights of indigenous children to education is increasing school enrollment in the town.
But Oeun also says the stories he has done on natural resources are particularly important, because he says indigenous people “are running out of wood for building houses, and wildlife and animals. Once natural resources are lost, that can’t be changed…we need to report on the impact of losing natural resources so people know the consequences.”
Oeun stands in a patch of light in the road through Yem as motorbikes buzz past and curious neighbors watch me and my colleagues photograph him. He says he likes working with Media One, even if it is just as a volunteer. He struggles with expenses for motorbike fuel and batteries for his audio recorder. But he feels it’s important work. “I want to promote community voice, help people raise their concerns, and help develop the community. I want everyone to have a better life.”