The people of Lower Mekong Dry Forests

Isolated and relatively poor even for Cambodia

The landcsape of the dry forests, though huge in area, is isolated and sparsely populated. Yet there do exist sleepy provincial towns in amongst the forests, days away from the next centre by foot, boat or elephant. Roads are few and far between: impassable in the wet season, and boneshakers at best in the dry season.
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Many communities here still attempt to retain their cultural and agricultural practices, and are heavily reliant on the area's natural resources.

For generations, people have sustainably used land and resources of the dry forests in Cambodia, Vietnam and Lao PDR. In many cases, these sustainable lifestyles still exist in communities far from roads and modern infrastructures.

Cultural Diversity
In Mondulkiri province on the eastern plains of Cambodia, next to the Vietnam border, over 80% of the population are from minority ethnic groups.

Phnong (or Bunong), Jarai, Tampuen, Kraol, Meul, Stieng live there, as well as Khmer, Lao, Cham, and Vietnamese. All have distinct customs and traditions, cultures, languages and beliefs.

The Phnong: largest minority
The Phnong form the largest group and are heavily dependent on forest resources.

One such example is the collection of liquid resin from trees in the dry forest. They do this by making a hole in the tree and lighting a small fire inside it for 1 to 2 minutes every day to force the flow of resin from the trees.

Usually specific individuals in the village manage the resin trees, and signs are marked on the tree so that others know which trees are being actively used.

When a resin tree is destroyed, village elders may chastise the culprit. This is because the resin, and its continued supply, is important as fuel for locally made lanterns. It is also prized as a sealant for boats and is increasingly in demand by outside traders. The resin, therefore is quickly taking on an economic as well traditionally important function.

Role of fire and people
The dry forests are on fire every year. Much of this is due to people. They set fires to stimulate new grass growth during the dry season which the cattle can eat. It can also clear land and can herd animals into greater concentrations for harvesting.

Local people have managed the fire regime in the dry forests for thousands of years. But burning patterns are not the same each year. With climate change fast upon us, what was once possible with limited and controlled effects, may soon no longer be a wise practice to carry out, as it could destroy more than it helps create.

Religion and forests
Many people in the dry forests practice Animism. They believe in forest spirits and carry out sacrificial ceremonies to pray for high rice yields and good fortune.

Prey Arak (spirit forests) have been revered and protected for generations. In some villages there are 2 or 3 spirit forests. No trees are cut or animals hunted within these forests for fear of angering the spirits that live there.

People believe that if forest products were collected in violation of customary usage, the spirits residing the forest, the Arak, would become and angry, and that the villagers would get sick and die.

Footprints of war
The presence of old land mines and unexploded bombs and ordinance (UXO) threatens not only wildlife but people. In Cambodia up to 40% of arable land is mined, and every month around 60 people are killed or injured (2004). The total area affected by mines covers almost 2,800km² - or 1.5% of the entire territory.

UXO are concentrated in the western areas of Cambodia, though not uncommon in certain areas of the dry forests. Mines and UXO are not a serious problem in the Cambodian eastern plains.

Utilizing local people and their knowledge
Learning about and fully utilizing indigenous knowledge related to biodiversity and traditional resource use is important for the successful conservation within and of the dry forests.

The lives of the people of the dry forest have long been tied to this land. Their cultural fabric is entwined with their environment. They have been using what they find around them to stay alive landscape, for thousands of years.

Forests and the people

The forest is vitally important to people in rural areas...

Shelter simple houses are usually built from bamboo or timber
Water there are no piped water services and few wells. The rivers, streams and seasonal ponds are critical.
Food Plants and animals from the forests are essential sources of nutrition.
Medicine A range of plants are used to treat all manner of illnesses - doctors and pharmacies just don't exist out there.
Light In areas with no electricity, nature's light ends at about 6pm each day. Using resin from tapped trees provides fuel for lanterns.
Fire Most of the rural population use wood for cooking.

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