Globalisation and the indigenous minority communities of north-eastern Cambodia

From left to right:

Phil Smith

Anne Thomas
Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP)

Abstract – Over recent decades, the far thest corners of the globe have become intercon- nected by globalisation. However, the benefits of this “development” have not spread equally, and of ten have negative ef fects for indigenous minorities who are important contributors to global society through their stewardship of natural resources and indigenous knowledge.
This article takes a closer look at the case of north-eastern Cambodia. It introduces ideas for how community development and education can empower indigenous minorities to analyse and address the challenges they are facing due to globalisation and increasing marginalisation, enabling them to both sustain their unique iden- tity and culture, and to adapt. 

The farthest corners of the globe have been touched by modernisation and become interconnected by globalisation in recent decades. Even the most remote indigenous minority communities feel the impact of the rapid transition to a market economy and of globalisation. The experience is usually not
a positive one. This presents a challenge to the education and community development practitioners working with indigenous minority communities: How can we best prepare these communities to meet the new challenges they are increasingly facing without being part of the problem ourselves? How can we help them maintain their culture, identity and language? How can we help them avoid becoming increasingly marginalised? Is it possible to make globalisation into an opportunity rather than a threat to the identity, language and culture of an indigenous minority community? How can their rich heritage contribute to nation building in their respective countries, and to global society as a whole?

The invisibly excluded

The discussion following the UNESCO Millennium Development Goals (MDG), the so called post-2015 discussion, has highlighted the impor tance of addressing inequality. The rapid development in Asia over recent decades masks the reality for many indigenous minority communities who still face poverty and exclusion, of ten as a direct result of these changes. We are talking about minorities facing systemic inequalities due to low literacy rates and education levels, a poor understanding of their rights and national political systems, geographic isolation, low levels of organisation and weak networks, low self-esteem (often due to majority narratives of their inferiority), and complex livelihood challenges (linked to inadequate land rights, deforestation, food security and climate change). As such, these groups are disempowered within national political systems and are highly vulnerable to pover ty, the combination of which has of ten led to increased risk of ethnic conflict (Minority Rights Group 2002). A 2009 UN MDG progress review of 40 countries found that
indigenous communities have not been included in the process of design, monitoring or implementation of the MDGs
(UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2009), and “statistics verify that indigenous peoples face a significantly wider gap than others in society in the eight areas identified as MDG priorities”. Enabling inclusion of minority language communities so that they can participate in political, economic, legal and social systems is one of the chief means of accomplishing greater equality in our increasingly connected world.

Bunong indigenous minority community members in Mondulkiri Province analyse the challenges facing their community, © Phil Smith

Key challenges

A key challenge is how local and globalising cultures can be reconciled. This is a controversial issue, particularly where global economic interests are in direct conflict with indigenous ways of life. Often the challenges that indigenous communities face are described as “exclusion”. According to this narrative they are excluded from, and missing out on, the bene
fits of development. However, there is a danger that this fails to recognise the fundamentally different “life project” (Blaser et al 2004) that the indigenous minorities have been trying
to achieve. While development actions are often well intended, failure to take into account the dif ferences in culture and worldview of ten renders these actions as forms of cultural imperialism, reinforcing the stereotype that indigenous communities are inferior. If people are simply being empowered to take part in a commercial society, as consumers and capitalproducing labour for global markets, then “empowerment” becomes tantamount to “subjection” (Henkel and Stirrat 

Beyond an anthropological interest in preser ving the way of life of indigenous minority communities, these ‘life projects’ play an important role in global society. According to a recent study concerning the co-occurrence of linguistic and biological diversity, 70% of all languages on earth exist within biodiversity hot-spots (Gorenflo 2011). This is not just
a simple correlation, but there is a functional connection; indigenous minority communities have long been caretakers
 of their traditional forests, and have depended on them for their livelihoods. As traditional forests and ancestral lands come under increasing threat from agri-business plantation concessions and logging, it is of ten only the indigenous minority communities who have an intrinsic motivation to protect these forest areas.

How education can help

Education could be a mediating factor to help indigenous minority communities cope with the rapid rate of change, increase political par ticipation and help children and youth 
construct a healthy indigenous identity. However, externally-imposed systems, operating in a foreign language and culture, create barriers to understanding which only serve to fuel further insecurity and confusion regarding indigenous minority identity. With increasing awareness of these issues, mother-tongue based multilingual education (MTB MLE) is gaining global recognition as an impor tant educational approach. The MTB MLE approach enables learners to begin their education in the language they know best, while helping them systematically bridge to the national language, enabling them to participate in ongoing education and the wider society. Community-based approaches also help to ensure that indigenous knowledge and values are represented in the curriculum, such that schooling can become a means for
cultural transmission.

While this article focuses on the situation of the indigenous minority communities of the highland regions of mainland Southeast Asia, similar challenges are experienced by indigenous minority communities around the globe.

Globalisation challenges1

Cambodia remains one of the poorest nations in Asia, with Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri provinces in the Northeast among the five provinces with the highest poverty rates. All of these
have significant indigenous minority populations. While indigenous minority groups comprise less than 1% of the national population, they make up approximately 60% of the
population in Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri. Each indigenous minority group has its own language and distinct belief systems, though they have similar customs, based around rotational farming (also called swidden cultivation or “slash and burn”) and animistic beliefs.

Indigenous Minority Communities of north-eastern Cambodia (Steung Treng, Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri Provinces). 

Cambodia is a signatory to a number of international instruments that protect the rights of indigenous peoples, as well as the Convention on Biological Diversity (1992), which recognises the role of indigenous minority communities in protecting biodiversity. While these rights and goals offer a notion of protection, indigenous minorities are in reality experiencing rapid disempowerment. Historically, the ethnic minority communities have benefited from strong social relationships and sustainable livelihoods, but these are shifting as a result of the rapid changes to their environment and livelihood, and therefore to their social structures, culture and identity.

The effects of rapid economic change

The north-eastern corner of Cambodia is a semi-mountainous and largely forested region that has historically been sparsely populated and relatively isolated from the rest of the country. In the mid-1990’s, economic liberalisation opened the way
 for logging concessions, industrial agriculture, and immigration from lowland provinces. Numerous 95-year plantation concessions have been granted to outside companies in the past few years, with land rights abuses frequently reported
by indigenous minority communities and in the press. Agroindustrial concessions account for over 2/3 of the land in Ratanakiri. While concessions are only half this amount in Mondulkiri, 24-fold growth between 2007 and 2012 suggests that the problem will soon be equivalent to that in Ratanakiri
if steps are not taken to prevent it.2 

This rapid economic change is having widespread effects, both socially and environmentally. Some villages have even been disbanded as their community members have scattered and have not been able to find land to re-organise their community in a new location. The traditional lands of the indigenous peoples of Ratanakiri and Steung Treng Provinces include Virachey National Park, considered to be one of the highest
biodiversity hot-spots in mainland Southeast Asia. Two years ago logging concessions began in these forests too, with
similar issues arising in protected areas of Mondulkiri province (Global Witness Report 2015).

Traditions breaking down

Rotational farming has been the foundation of most indigenous peoples’ livelihoods for centuries. As their forest resources are being rapidly depleted, indigenous peoples are forced to switch to a sedentary and confined lifestyle. Traditional agricultural methods give ever-decreasing yields under these conditions as soil quality declines. People are forced
to turn towards commercial fertilisers and pesticides and commercial seed varieties, increasing dependence on commercial products which they can rarely afford, increasing risks from improper pesticide use, and reducing crop diver

Members of the Bunong community reading books in the Bunong language, © Phil Smith

Kavet villagers in Steung Treng Province, excited to see their language in written form on the new alphabet chart, © Anne Thomas 

“While change is a natural part of community and culture, the speed and process with which globalisation and modernisation have impacted indigenous minority communities poses a threat to their cultures, languages, livelihoods and environments.”

Forest resources have been a pillar of indigenous livelihoods. Indigenous people would fish, hunt and gather wild produce (such as roots, leaves, honey, resin and medicine) from the forest to supplement their crops and provide some basic income. These resources are critical when crops fail, but deforestation and land alienation is removing this important “social safety net”. This is especially apparent in Ratanakiri, where villages are now “islands” within expanding agro-industr y concessions. While change is a natural part of community and culture, the speed and process with which globalisation and modernisation have impacted indigenous minority communities poses a threat to their cultures, languages, livelihoods and environments. Migration, improved roads, Cambodian media broadcasts and Video CDs are especially affecting younger people, who aspire to a “modern” lifest yle. This is creating an intergenerational divide where traditional values, many of which provided social protection, are no longer being maintained. For example, youth are exposed to media representations of relationships, which promote greater freedom in sexual relationships, but fail to educate about HIV and relational impacts. Increasing numbers of youth and young adults are travelling across provinces and international borders to per form factor y and other low-
skilled jobs in the cities. Although human traf ficking is not yet a significant problem in Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri, the experience of other indigenous minorities in the region suggest that there is a very real danger of this becoming a major issue if communities continue on the trajector y of
devaluation and disempowerment.

Challenges to a way of life

The traditional gender roles and relative gender equity are also being challenged, leading to widening gender divides. Traditionally, women had a strong role in agricultural production and decision making as they were the “owners” of land and assets under a matrilocal system. Today, that is increasingly devalued as men become more involved in new forms
of wage labour on industrial plantations or illegal logging. Cash income is generally controlled by men, which combined with increased market access to cheap alcohol has fuelled alcohol misuse, and in turn domestic violence.

In the face of these changes, indigenous minority groups have come to own a marred identity. Their traditional knowledge, culture and way of life are devalued in the face of “modern” individualist, industrial and commercial values. Community members will often describe themselves as “ foolish” and as
people “without knowledge or skill”. This marred identity blinds them to the value of their local resources and knowledge, and limits their agency in adapting to the rapid changes
they are experiencing. Amongst the older generation a poverty mindset is already becoming entrenched, and as their livelihoods are progressively eroded, many have lost hope and come to describe themselves as “waiting to die”. While youth are more optimistic, they too are facing significant challenges when it comes to constructing a healthy identity.

These complex social, political and economic changes
leave communities ill-equipped to navigate these new external pressures, negotiate the powerful interests driving them, or participate in governance processes. Few indigenous
 community members speak Khmer, Cambodia’s official lan
guage, to a level that gains them respect. While recognising the important efforts the Government has been making in
implementing mother-tongue multilingual education, many still cannot read or write. While a few small emergent asso
ciations and organisations exist, indigenous groups lack the organisation required to speak with one, sufficiently unified, voice. These factors taken together mean that indigenous communities are struggling to engage in the wider society, leaving their right to self-determination as merely a promise on paper.

Kavet students in a mother-tongue-based multilingual education class in Ratanakiri Province, © Anne Thomas

A commitment to capacity building and empowerment

A number of initiatives in north-eastern Cambodia have been working to strengthen the indigenous communities for over
a decade. Their experiences are providing valuable insights into how indigenous communities can be ef fectively supported through education and community development.

A starting point is the community s ability to identify their concerns, organise themselves, and interact with the new social and political systems. However, this can only happen as marred identities are healed and indigenous communities are able to operate from a position of dignity. Cultural reflection is therefore a crucial step to explore what the community wants to maintain of its culture and pass on to the next generation, and what it recognises that it needs to change. Clearly this is only a decision that indigenous minority people can make for themselves. This process can be facilitated by those from the indigenous communities who can work in the local language, understand the culture, and are committed to learning. Programmes need to start with what people in the community know and do, and to build appreciatively from
there, af firming the communities’ assets and potential to address their current challenges.

The Identity-Based Community Development Approach (IBCD) employed by International Cooperation Cambodia (ICC) starts with participatory reflection processes on cultural change, and then uses “reflection-action” cycles in order to enable communities to identify their challenges and plan initiatives to address them. Other approaches have included community consultation, both within the communities (intraethnic) and between the communities (inter-ethnic), such as undertaken by the Highlanders Association.

The following list presents some practical actions, which
build from indigenous identity, currently being undertaken by
NGOs and Associations together with indigenous communities in north-eastern Cambodia.3

Practical action

Relevant action includes:

  • Participatory language development of indigenous languages
  • Community-based mother-tongue based multilingual education (MTB MLE)
  • Training and empowering instructors and facilitators from within the community
  • Supporting ethno-arts (including local music, dance, drawing, festivals, cuisine and other arts), which both affirm indigenous identity and open culturally appropriate channels of communication
  • Learning circles/interest groups around specific themes identified by the communities
  • Supporting organisation and networking, both intra-ethnic and inter-ethnic
  • Supporting rights claims of specific rights allocated to them (health, education, land rights, forest rights)
  • Community radio and social networks using mother tongue and national language
  • Community media using mother tongue and national language
  • Facilitating access to government ser vices (health, education, relevant training)

There is an urgent need to support indigenous communities and address challenges brought on by globalisation through empowering local indigenous persons to hold decisionmaking roles at both community and organisational level. The best-working initiatives embed indigenous language, culture
and identity into community education and development processes. This requires a long-term commitment to building
the capacity of indigenous peoples, communities and organisations. However, if our goal is to enable communities to meaningfully fulfil their right to self-determination, then we must invest the necessary time and resources to help them choose how to sustain their identity and culture while adapting to the rapidly-changing context.


1 / Thanks to International Cooperation Cambodia for their signifi cant input to this section. 

2 / 

3 / More information about these approaches can be found in “Sign posts to Identity Based community development”, which documents approaches used by organisations throughout Asia in supporting indigenous minority culture and identity. Available from 


Blaser, M.; Feit, H. A. and McRae, G. (2004): In the way of development: Indigenous peoples, life projects and globalization. London: Zed Books. 

Global Witness (2015): Global Witness Report 2015: The Cost of Luxury. 

Gorenflo (2011): Co-occurrence of linguistic and biological diversity in biodiversity hotspots and high biodiversity wilderness areas. 1Of1SOJ 

Henkel, H. and Stirrat, R. (2001): Participation as spiritual duty; empowerment as secular subjection. In: Cooke, B. and Kothari, U. (eds.): Participation: The new tyranny? London: Zed Books. Pp. 168–84. 

Minority Rights Group (2002): Minority rights and development. 

UN Department of Economic and Social Aff airs (2009): State of the world’s indigenous peoples. 

About the authors

Anne Thomas is an education consultant and independent researcher. Her special focus is remote ethno-linguistic minority communities which do not have access to education services. In 1997, she helped launch and pilot the first mother-tongue based multi-lingual education (MTB MLE) projects in Cambodia, using a communitybased, non-formal approach for youth and adults.

Non-Timber Forest Products

PO Box 8902, Banlung, Ratanakiri


Phil Smith is an associate director within SIL International’s LEAD (Language, Education, and Development) Asia team. Phil and his wife Mariam have lived in Cambodia for 10 years working with the Bunong indigenous people. He now provides consultancy for education and development programmes throughout Asia, and co-authored “Signposts for identity-based community development”.

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