Cambodian roads may end isolation - and tradition

The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line. But for years, curved dirt paths, linking bamboo and palm-leaf homes around a patch of communal land suited the people of Prov village.

"But the commune chief told us to build in a straight line along the road," says Kampring Chalik, an elder in Prov, where villagers still make the sunrise-to-sunset walks to market on foot. "I like this way better. It's the way developed villages do it."

Despite the lingering legacy of decades of civil unrest, including four years under the brutal 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime responsible for the deaths of more than a million Cambodians, the growing climate of peace that has settled over much of the country has come to Ratanakkiri Province.

The government is building more than 125 miles of roads linking the districts within Ratanakkiri, as well as the districts to the national road by next year. "The road is the first priority to develop indigenous people's living standard," says Kham Khoeun, provincial governor.

But some nongovernmental aid workers worry that stretches of new highway will result in a loss of traditional life in hundreds of villages. "Roads will really open their lands up to the market economy," says John McAndrew, of International Cooperation for Development and Solidarity. "It starts with simple trading of goods, but then comes land sales. That can be really debilitating to these traditional communities."

Last July, advocates for the hill tribes won government recognition of communal land rights in a proposed law that is being reviewed by the Ministry of Land Use Management. It is aimed at solving land disputes that have recently erupted all over Cambodia, with villagers claiming that powerful military and government officials and businessmen have been forcing them from their lands. But lawmakers also inserted an amendment allowing for the acquisition of indigenous lands under certain conditions - such as building roads.

Many villagers don't have trouble with that. "I've been trying for a long time to get my villagers to live in a straight line along the road," says villager Preng Try. "It makes it easier to communicate."

"The children will be able to go to school to get a better education, and the patients will be able to go to the hospital, or the ambulance will be able to get to the remote villages to pick them up," says Gov. Kham Khoeun.

Min Muny, provincial program manager for the UN group Carere, disagrees: "The roads are gold to developers. But they're pretty worthless to others until they have services."

A drive on National Road 78, which runs from Vietnam in the east to the western provinces of Cambodia, reveals extensive deforestation. In the past, any villagers who sold land risked being thrown out of the village, or faced other repercussions, say aid workers. With the population of the region beginning to grow, and land prices in the city on the rise, newcomers and residents from the provincial center of Banlung are looking for land outside the city.

"In more remote villages ... everyone was still working together because the pressure to sell land wasn't so strong," says Mr. McAndrew. But in less-isolated villages, people were selling land without talking to the village chief, and even the village chief was selling."

"Pushing the villagers to live along roads will break their communal will, their communal consciousness," says a representative of Non-Timber Forest Products, an environmental group in Ratanakkiri. Then, "the land is up for grabs."

In Prov village, rearranged three years ago along the road, people have moved away from communal land use toward individual entitlements. Kampring Chalik sits crouched on a slim piece of wood, looking as comfortable as if he were sitting in an overstuffed armchair. "I'm happy to see this development and the situation changing in the village," he says. But like some in his community, Kampring Chalik is not certain how living in straight lines along a road will help his village right now.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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