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Strong voice together: Young and old protecting Cambodia’s rivers and forests

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Ping Chamroeun (right) interviews Houn Kaleb at a sacred site above the Sesan River in northern Ratanakiri province, Cambodia. Photo by Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America

Working across generations in a struggle to defend the environment and indigenous culture.

Houn Kaleb is hacking his way through bamboo and brush up a steep hillside bank on the Sesan River. His objective is a shrine, it’s where he is leading a small group of young ethnic Proav Cambodians in their 20s. They make an offering, mostly packets of cookies and chips. They light incense, and Kaleb says a prayer.

On the opposite bank of the river, water buffalo quietly contemplate the brown, swirling waters of the Sesan, running strong and high at this time of the rainy season. The wind rushes through the trees and bamboo as Kaleb prays.

He’s mostly asking for help: to protect the remnants of the wild forest along the Sesan. The river itself is not safe either. The Sesan is one of three main tributaries flowing into the Mekong in northern Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province, and is now affected by dams in Vietnam and others proposed in Cambodia.

“If we don’t make offerings to the spirits, they won’t help us protect the forest and river,” he says. “If we allow people to destroy the forest, we’ll have problems.”

The problems are evident across Cambodia’s far northern Ratanakiri province. Plantations (rubber and eucalyptus trees, cassava, and other crops) stretch out across the flatter areas, replacing wild forests of hardwood trees where indigenous people are accustomed to gathering food, and timber. Near Kaleb’s village on the bank of the Sesan sits an unused dredge, which a foreign company was using to look for gold. Kaleb and others forced the operation to stop, but in Cambodia powerful people have a way of pushing forward all sorts of investment and businesses at the expense of indigenous communities.

The fight continues

I’m here to do a story about young indigenous people and their struggle to protect the environment in northern Cambodia, but I keep running into community elders also involved so I want to give them a little credit as well. (Full disclosure: I’m not exactly young anymore, so maybe I can relate with these old guys!)

Kaleb, now 57, brings to the struggle a certain experience with conflict: He was recruited by the Khmer Rouge when he was 12, but fled the country at about the time this sinister force overthrew the government in 1975. “They forced people into communes, and I did not agree with this. They gave them so little food, not enough to sustain themselves,” he says.  After witnessing an array of abuses including political assassinations, he and many others defected, fleeing into Vietnam, later to return with that country’s army to drive out the Khmer Rouge and end its genocidal reign. At one point, his unit captured 800 Khmer Rouge soldiers in one day. They met a better fate than many did in those years. “We sent them back to their families in their home villages,” he says.

When that war ended, Kaleb stayed in the military until 1987, when he finally returned to his home village and took up farming, only to find himself in a different kind of struggle. “Fighting in war is one thing, but now I am fighting to protect the environment,” Kaleb says. He represents his indigenous Proav people at national level networks working to establish communal land rights for indigenous communities, a key means to help them conserve their remaining forest lands.

Young people are essential to the struggle, Kaleb says. “If we don’t make an effort to protect the environment we will lose it, and if young people don’t care we will quickly lose the forest.”

Youth and technology

About 150 kilometers east of the shrine where Kaleb worships, Chol Hors contemplates a massive ditch full of mud and water. It’s near his village, a place called Lum, close to the border with Vietnam. A company digging for gold abandoned this area, but locals wonder if and when they might be back.  “I’m worried that a company could come back here to mine, and destroy the land and affect the farms,” Hors says.

Chol Hors, 50, in a cassava field bordering a gold mine exploration site. He and others in his village are concerned that mining in this area could affect farms. Photo by Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America
Chol Hors, 50, in a cassava field bordering a gold mine exploration site. He and others in his village are concerned that mining in this area could affect farms. Photo by Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America

The exploration site is right next to the community’s spirit forest, where they worship, and also close to a Vietnamese-owned rubber tree plantation that invaded land Hors says belongs to his indigenous Jarai community.

Lum still has some community forest, and Hors works closely with young people in the community trained by Oxfam’s partner Media One to produce radio programs and social media content to spread news about their work to protect their forest land. They have a small radio station that broadcasts programs about indigenous rights, environmental protection, and public health programs across just a few square kilometers.

Hors is about 50, he says he avoided the worst of the Khmer Rouge treatment when he was young because they found him too small to work in the fields, and deployed him to take care of livestock like water buffalo. He survived the so-called secret bombings the US carried out here in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “Everywhere there were bombs,” he says, walking down a muddy road near his village, where he shows us the radio station, a wood-frame shack with a tiny transmitter and 30-foot antenna.

Both Hors and Kaleb tell me that the young people they work with, all trained by Oxfam’s partners and allies working on land rights and environmental conservation, are playing an important role in the struggle in Ratanakiri. “Young people have technical skills,” Kaleb says, “They can share our stories about our community, so elderly people can’t work to protect the environment without the young people.”

Hors agrees that collaboration across generations is essential. “Together we have a strong voice in our fight to protect our land.”

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