Tradition

Bunong Homeland Added to Global Watchlist

The indigenous bunong people’s Mondulkiri homeland has been placed on the 2022 World Monuments Watch, as one of 25 treasured heritage sites and culturally-rich ways of life that urgently need to be preserved.
Bunong villagers pray in front of a spirit house in Mondulkiri province, in 2019. Picture: Catherine Scheer.
Bunong villagers pray in front of a spirit house in Mondulkiri province, in 2019. Picture: Catherine Scheer.

The land Cambodia’s indigenous bunong people call home has been placed on the 2022 World Monuments Watch, as one of 25 treasured heritage sites that urgently need to be preserved.

On Friday, World Monuments Fund (WMF) revealed the cultural landscape of the bunong people was being added to the list of at-risk heritage sites worldwide.

These sites powerfully demonstrate pressing global challenges of climate change, imbalanced tourism, underrepresentation and recovery from crisis. It underscores the need for greater action to support heritage places and the people who care for them, WMF said in a statement.

Through the 2022 World Monuments Watch, WMF called for greater awareness and support for efforts to use heritage preservation as a tool for strengthening indigenous people’s rights.

The bunong, who predominantly live in the northeastern province of Mondulkiri, have ways of life intimately tied to their ancestral lands.

“In addition to distinct vernacular structures, the bunong cultural landscape is composed of agricultural fields, spirit forests and burial grounds—all living places of social, spiritual and historical importance linked by religious practices and traditional knowledge,” WMF said.

WMF added the bunong serve as essential human stewards of rich cultural landscapes through their continuous cultivation of crops and traditional forest management practices.

WMF said that their living landscape and bunong way of life are affected by intense economic development, natural resource extraction and land commodification, which threaten to disconnect villagers from their ancestral grounds and traditions.

Bunong communities all over the Cambodian highlands are trying to protect the places and practices that are integral to their daily lives and identity.”

Bunong Indigenous Peoples Association, a local civil society group, planned to map and film bunong spiritual and historical sites to support and promote the transmission of local ways of knowing and relating to land.

Using digital tools, the community-led effort will allow bunong communities to assert the importance of their living landscape while building skills to aid in their quest for greater recognition, WMF said.

“Being on the watchlist makes this site being known to the world. We are a small group. When many people get to know this place, it helps us to protect it. It is also important for the knowledge to go to the next generation, so that our children and our grand-children feel proud about their own history,” said Neth Prak of the Bunong Indigenous Peoples Association:

“This is to keep their history alive. I also feel lucky to have our architecture on the watch, so other people can see it and our young people can keep it and prevent it from being lost,” Prak added.

Bénédicte de Montlaur, President and CEO of WMF, said that saving irreplaceable cultural heritage has never been more important.

“The daunting global challenges facing heritage in the twenty-first century require innovative, sustainable, and replicable solutions,” de Montlaur said.

“By supporting communities in preserving the places they treasure most, we can strengthen social bonds and foster a greater understanding that our futures as global citizens are inextricably linked.”