Under the Sovereignty of Lok Ta

Under the Sovereignty of Lok Ta - Spirit Owners, Climate Change, and Collaborative Management


Lok Ta, “the owner of the water and the land” in Cambodia’s protected Prey Lang Forest, is rapidly losing out to deforestation and cashew plantations. Photo by Courtney Work.

In this essay, CAORC-NEH Senior Research Fellow Courtney Work discusses the intertwined economies of development and environmental conservation in Cambodia’s Prey Lang Forest.

For over a thousand years, the indigenous Kuy people lived sustainably in Cambodia’s northern Prey Lang Forest. The sovereign owner of this forest (and all water and land), who is often called Lok Ta, or “honored grandparent,” arbitrates resource access and ensures social prosperity. Everyone is entitled to as much as they need from the water and the land, provided they ask permission, make regular communal offerings in gratitude, and behave with respect towards all elements, animals, and plants (often mistakenly referred to as “nature” and considered to be separate from culture).

“Nature” enforces the rules. The owner of the water and the land delivers swift punishments for infractions, mostly illnesses or accidents for perpetrators or their loved ones, but also floods, droughts, and blocked access to resources. Now, after 25 years of development in Cambodia, market forces have spurred rapid deforestation, degradation of water sources, and destruction of habitats, laying waste to the once vibrant forest. In the most heavily developed regions, forest remains only where perpetrators fell immediately and deathly ill or where terrible accidents occurred. In these places, people say, “Lok Ta won!” and the area remains open for use and habitation by multiple species.

In the few remaining places with standing forest in the recently developed regions of Prey Lang, villagers honor the power of the mountain and say, “Lok Ta Won!” Aerial photo courtesy SIEN Sothea.

Outside these pockets of life, however, the punishments promised by Lok Ta for not respecting the bounty of the water and the land have arrived. During my research in 26 villages in and around the Prey Lang Forest, I collected consistent reports from residents of increased illnesses, dramatic losses of vital tree species, the absence of fish in the water and game on the land, the breakdown of social solidarity, as well as floods and droughts that affect both local prosperity and ecosystem health. In the face of this loss, the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN), comprised of mostly indigenous Kuy villagers, began organizing and patrolling their forest in the late 1990s.

By 2006, the Kuy reported dramatic changes in their environment due to the excessive harvesting of forest resources and conversion of forest lands toward industrial plantations, which continued through 2012. In May 2016, Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment (MoE) transferred nearly one million hectares of state production forest to protected areas. The largest of these is the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary. To meet the challenge of protecting these areas, the ministry has called on local communities and organizations, including the PLCN, to help collaboratively manage the forest and assist in writing new forestry regulations.

PLCN members deliver illegal timber to Ministry of Environment Rangers as part of efforts toward collaborative management. Photo by Courtney Work.

But there are considerable challenges for sustainable natural resource management in an environment that privileges economic growth over protection and management. From international development organizations, through national actors, all the way to individual villagers, the value of cash and the power it can bestow naturalizes resource destruction. There are two factors, however, that, with slowly gathering force, push against the legitimacy of market logics in Prey Lang. The first is climate change. Every village reported crop failures over the last three years from droughts and heavy rains, and in 2018, rice and cashew harvests were down by half. Everyone living and working in the Prey Lang Forest has been and will continue to be affected by the localized climate change effects from rapid deforestation.

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The second is that both the majority Khmer and minority Kuy share knowledge of and respect for Lok Ta, “the owner of the water and the land.” None say that contemporary climate change and the effects of flood and drought are punishments from Lok Ta. But they all recognize the convergence. Indigenous people all over the world recognize this as the logical outcome of not respecting the extended kinship networks that include the water, the land, and all their inhabitants, explicitly not “nature,” but rather society. Part of my research objective was to learn whether, and to what extent, this shared understanding in Cambodia can facilitate conservation and cooperation in the tense environment of the Prey Lang Forest.

My research uncovered a thorny situation that relates directly to market relationships, which force foreclosure of the circular economy of Lok Ta. The laws and logics of the two systems are near inversions of each other. Success in the market economy requires money, available only through extraction: timber, plantation, metals, fish, and game. From this perspective, people take as much as they can: “I’d be rich just like them, if I were willing to cut to sell,” said one PLCN member. In the circular economy of Lok Ta, you take as much as you need and share the excess. In a market economy, this is impossible.

A traditional hut built for offerings to the land’s spirit owner, Lok Ta. Photo by Courtney Work.

The naturalized need for money also renders the MoE rangers work much more complex and difficult. As one ranger noted, “The people are poor. They need money to pay back their loans.” The market economy, governed by international investment, is privileged above all things, while the environmental and community health that for centuries was governed by Lok Ta is marginalized. Rangers and villagers alike want development, but not development’s costs. “We have a lot more stuff now: motorbikes, clothes, and dishes are so easy to get now. But, everything is gone. What kind of development is this?”

My philosopher friends in the Prey Lang Forest are asking important questions and making astute observations. They have one simple recommendation as a place of departure for addressing our globally shared concerns about climate change and environmental collapse: “Respect is very important ... Respect, solidarity, and gratitude. Maybe we could just start there.”

About the Author

Dr. Courtney Work is a postdoctoral research affiliate with the Institute for Social Studies of Erasmus University and was a 2016–2017 CAORC-NEH Senior Research Fellow. Her research works at the intersections of land, religion, development, and climate change. Questions or comments can be directed to courtneykwork@gmail.com.

The CAORC-NEH Research Fellowship is made possible thanks to support from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Fellowship Programs at Independent Research Institutions (FPIRI) program. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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