From the Archives: The Bunong – The Caretakers of Cambodia´s Sacred Forests – Part 1


The Bunong - Front Cover

In 2006, I wrote a report for Fauna and Flora International (FFI) on the Bunong, one of Cambodia´s indigenous minorities. The Bunong live mostly in the north eastern province of Mondulkiri, an area of high barren plateaus, dense rainforests and virtually no roads, bordering on Vietnam.

Traditionally, the Bunong practice swidden agriculture and domesticate elephants. As there are hardly any elephants left in the wild in Cambodia, that tradition has already died. Today, their traditional farming lifestyle is also under threat – by missionaries, the loss of rain forest to mono-cultures and a huge influx of Khmer people into Mondulkiri Province.

The report was published in English and Khmer, primarily to create awareness within the Cambodian government and the business community for the plight of the indigenous people of northeastern Cambodia and for their ability to manage natural resources in a sustainable manner.

The fate of the remaining elephants in Mondulkiri is dependent on the continuing survival of the Bunong culture, which has since taken a serious beating from all the developments this report warns about.

The Bunong – Caretakers of Cambodia´s Sacred Forests was commissioned by FFI and co-financed by the EU, US AID, The NGO Forum on Cambodia, The Australian Government and the East West Management Institute.

This is Part 1. I will post several more chapters in the coming days.

The following images are scans from the original publications. All photographs by Aroon Thaewchatturat.

The Caretakers of Cambodia’s Sacred Forests

“Sok-sabay,” the old man greets visitors to his village.
“Wes-lang”, he continues with a wry smile.
“Bon Jour”, he finally announces, as he puts his hands together in greeting.

Moe Chan is probably in his 80s. He is a Bunong, and an elder in the village of Pau Trom. Moe Chan is not sure how old he is exactly, as his papers were lost during the Pol Pot Regime. The old Bunong man has followed his traditional subsistence lifestyle most of his life. He proudly proclaims, “I captured four wild elephants when I was a young man. As a farmer I have followed the Bunong way all my life. My home is Cambodia.”

One of Moe Chan’s earliest memories was the appearance of the French to his village, deep in the jungles of Mondulkiri, in the 1940s.

“The French occupiers told me they had come to stay for a 150 years. I laughed. I did not think they would stay in Cambodia. Sixteen years later, and they were gone. My country was independent once more.”
Today Moe Chan greets his guests in Khmer, his own language, Bunong and, when appropriate, in French. Like many other Cambodians, the Bunong indigenous community are only too happy their country is at peace. Moe Chan, who has lived through Cambodia’s most turbulent recent history, hopes that his community will be able to contribute to Cambodia’s current renaissance.
He knows the stakes are high – the Bunong and other indigenous peoples have been the traditional caretakers of the forests and natural resources of Mondulkiri for centuries. The vast jungles that cover much of the province are a living contribution to Cambodia’s natural wealth and form some of the planet’s most unique ecosystems, even supporting populations of wild Asian elephants.
But with continually improving infrastructure and a steadily growing economy, Cambodia’s incredibly rich and diverse wilderness areas and its inhabitants face new challenges.
Population expansion and development is likely to affect the country’s unique biodiversity and cultural heritage. Potentially, it could incur the loss of some of the country’s most valuable resources. Nowhere are these changes more apparent than in the remote Eastern province of Mondulkiri.

Part 1 – The Bunong Tradition – The links between Culture and Forest in Cambodia

The Bunong Livelihood

The Bunong are subsistence farmers living in small village communities in the forests of Mondulkiri. Traditionally, everything the Bunong need to survive comes from the forest and the modest fields the Bunong plant near their villages.

Chok Marel, the grandson of Bunong elder Moe Chan, likes to lead visitors to his field, and demonstrate his community’s agricultural practices, “We call our fields meel. Like my father and my grandfather before me, I grow sweet potatoes, mango, banana, pineapple, cassava, eggplant, chili, jackfruit and rattan. We also grow a bit of cotton and tobacco”.

Most Bunong families practice swidden or shifting cultivation as their main form of agriculture.
Forest is cleared and burnt to establish agricultural land which are cultivated with hill rice, intercropped with a wide variety of vegetables. In the past, new forest was cleared and previously farmed fields were left fallow until the forest cover regrew, the soil regained its fertility and the plots could be used again.

Today, Bunong people no longer clear new forest to make meel. Almost every household is aware that it is forbidden by Cambodian law to cut new forest. Normally, the Bunong return to their old fields, which they left fallow for five to nine years and use the same fields for three to five years, depending on the soil quality.

Swidden agriculture comes with its share of controversy, but, in the forests of Mondulkiri, where man and nature have formed a centuries old alliance and have achieved some degree of  balance, this traditional planting cycle has maintained forest cover.
However, recent human population and infrastructure growth have put pressure on this system of subsistence agriculture. The Bunong have found that loss of their land has necessitated cutting new forest or replanting old plots whose soil quality has yet to recover. As a result, too much land is burnt, the fallow periods aren’t long enough and the sustainability of swidden agriculture becomes compromised.

The Spirit Forest and forest management amongst the Bunong

Aside from subsistence agriculture, the Bunong engage in small scale resource exploitation in the forest, regulated by an ancient and simple form of forest management.
According to Bunong belief (shared with other indigenous peoples throughout South East Asia), some actions in the forest are governed by religious rules that keep man and nature in balance, avoiding widespread habitat destruction.

Chok Marel explains, “The Bunong believe that nature is populated by spirits, both good and bad, and that these must be obeyed and appeased. No spirits are more powerful than those of the Spirit Forest.”

These Spirit Forests are often located close to the Bunong villages. Despite the deference with which he describes these sacred areas, Chok Marel makes no secret of their location and is happy to show visitors what his people feel compelled to protect. Chok Marel recalls the wisdom handed down from his parents, “Bunong villages are surrounded by Spirit Forests. My village has three Spirit Forests. We never cut a single tree in these areas.”

The young man follows a narrow path through dry brush out of his village. Soon the trail leads into light evergreen forest. It’s pleasantly cool under the huge canopies. Bird song is audible; the sound of a small river breaks the silence of the grasslands around the village.
Chok Marel steps into the stream and wades through the shallow water, until he reaches a rocky ledge. A small waterfall tumbles into a pool of clear water below.

“This is where the Spirit Forest begins. There are no trails in. We never enter here and we never take anything. The Bunong believe that if the forests are cut down, the spirits will cause great misfortune amongst those who live in the forest as well as those who do the cutting. We are all at risk from disease if we cut the forest and some of us will die.”

Spirit Forests are usually stretches of very dense evergreen-forest. A waterfall, a small hillock or a giant tree often signify the location of such an area. Biodiversity tends to be high in Spirit Forests.

Conservation through belief – Bunong and nature balance under threat

The close symbiosis between man and nature is remarkable and extends to other forest areas as well. Burial grounds for example, are not to be logged or otherwise exploited.
Hence the Bunong belief system is in itself a locally adapted code of behavior – an efficient form of responsible resource management refined by hundreds of years of first hand experience. It’s a system based on respect – the Bunong realize that a healthy forest is essential to their cultural survival. It is part of their identity and part of Cambodia’s spiritual and natural heritage.
No wonder then, that the Bunong are concerned about outsiders cutting down the forests. When asked about who exactly owns the forest, the Bunong answer that the forest is owned by everyone. They lay no claim of individual land tenure but feel collectively connected to the forest. The Bunong truly believe that the forest belongs to the spirits, and that everyone should have access to it.  They don’t consider land as a commodity. Use, management and transfer rights are only defined for individual resources and products.  Access to the resource base – the forest – is obtained through sacrifices to the spirits. This egalitarian attitude makes them vulnerable to land grabbing, a common problem.

Pluk Mal, a 63 year old Bunong from Laoka, explains, “The forest has already changed a great deal since I was a little boy. In those days, we used to walk three or four kilometers to our resin trees. It was dangerous, because there were so many animals then, including tigers and elephants. So we stayed close to the village. The next village was more than 40 kilometers away. I remember seeing many animals throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Then, during the war and the Pol Pot years, soldiers killed and ate all the animals in the forest. After I came back to my village in 1980, there was hardly anything left alive in the forest. The last time I saw a wild elephant was in 1994.”

Like his fellow Bunong, Pluk Mal depends on collecting non-timber forest products to subsidize his livelihood. On his walks, Pluk Mal, accompanied by his son, collects forest vegetables, wild fruit and honey as well as bamboo or rattan for house construction and liquid tree resin, which he sells to traders in Sen Monorom.
Clearly, the long held belief amongst the Bunong in sacred, untouchable forest areas and the restricted use of forest resources has been a significant asset to Mondulkiri’s biodiversity and should play a major role in the conservation of Mondulkiri’s forests.

To be continued….

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