Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Ratanakiri resources

The bus to Ratanakiri takes 11 hours, in the dry season. Some say its almost impossible in the wet season, and I can understand why. Parts of road had disappeared completely, and other parts made us feel like the bus was swimming, not driving..

Ratanakiri is about as remote as you can get in Cambodia, and contains only 1% of Cambodia’s population. one in four children die before reaching the age of five and three quarters of the population is illiterate. Infrastructure is poor and very few tourists can be bothered, or have the time, to make the journey. It screams Indianna Jones-style adventure and I knew I HAD to do it before I left Cambodia.

With prompting from a fellow solo backpacker, I learned how to drive a motorbike. I don’t mean a dirt bike, I mean a proper motorbike. I loved it! The rain was drizzling, but that seemed to make the scenery over the mountains more magical, as their peaks disappeared into the clouds. We drove out through the rubber plantations on semi-sealed road, on a journey to a waterfall. This road was challenging even to the best of drivers. I found myself bogged on one occasion, but was helped by the friendly passers by. The waterfalls was impressive, and crater lake is well worth being placed on the tourist maps.

The next 2 days saw me hike deep into the heart of the jungle, with a local English-speaking guide, my fellow solo backpacker and an Indigenous ranger. We slept in hammocks by a waterfall, and enjoyed local foods cooked traditionally by a campfire. It was magical.

The indigenous people of Ratanikiri are amazingly unique people. They have their own music, language, culture and religion (a type of animism). Most still live off the land, hunting for wild pigs and whatever they can find. Seeing this first-hand fed my inner anthropologist. Just when I was almost ready to pack in my Community Development studies and study indigenous languages for the rest of my life, I was hit with the confronting reality of poverty in the region.

Living off the land means they don’t have a great need for money, but many work wherever work is available to afford luxury items. Illegal deforestation is destroying communities, and even along the remote hunting tracks we saw trees that had been marked for logging. Losing these trees means losing the biodiversity of this unique region, and losing the food source for the tribes that need this region to survive.

Yes, its illegal, but this is a corrupt country and a few spare dollars being thrown around by Vietnamese logging companies will ensure that the local indigenous people will never get a say over the uses and abuses of the land that their people have inhabited for over 20,000 years. I would see these families in shanties outside of the main town in Ratanakiri. They have been stripped of their land, and now were being stripped of their food sources. The only hope to ensure the land is protected is Eco-tourism, and the environment may not last long under the strains of large influxes of tourists. They are trapped in a conundrum.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I was reminded by my drunk but enthusiastic tour company manager that Australian geologists are scouting through the mountains for gold, and that somewhere in the mountains there is the prospect of finding larger mines. At no point in history has there been a situation with multinationals searching for natural resources have resulted in fair and equal treatment for the local, poor, illiterate indigenous populations. Ratanakiri is becoming victim to this trend.

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