Indigenous communities are the archetype of sustainable societies, having historically evolved and thrived in various ecosystems. However, as the modern industrial world continues to flourish, indigenous people have been struggling to overcome hardships it has brought upon them. The depletion of their land and natural resources has forced them into crippling poverty as they face the growing free market. Not only is their property threatened, but their cultural traditions are as well.
In 2009, four United Nations agencies, UNDP, UNESCO, ILO, and FAO, along with various local organizations, launched an initiative called the Creative Industries Support Programme (CISP). The purpose of CISP is to help indigenous people of Cambodia obtain entrepreneurial knowledge regarding things such as marketing and quality control, exhibition, and costing and consignment skills. By honing these business skills, the indigenous artisans are able to sell their handicraft products to the public. Overall, CISP hopes to “revive Cambodia’s cultural assets and create jobs, spur economic growth and reduce poverty by developing the country’s creative industries.”
So far, CISP has been quite successful in their mission. Within the past three years, over 800 indigenous artisans have been trained and their products are continually gaining appeal. According to a recent UNDP report, product sales between October 2010 and March 2011 increased by 18 percent as opposed to the same period in 2009.
Sales growth, however, does not merely depend on tourism attraction; for the program to function, effective organizational strategies must be implemented. In response to this demand, CISP works to build a market network and strives to produce high quality merchandise in a timely manner, as dictated by the buyer.
The market consists of products that tend to be smaller and lighter; notebook and laptop covers, shopping bags, and wallets are some of the more popular items, and are woven in the traditional manner. “There is a need of adaptation of produced crafts to tourists’ needs and constraints,” said UNESCO’s Blaise Kilianto MediaGlobal. “Crafts that used to be everyday tools can become souvenirs. The fact that these crafts are made according to traditional technique allows for the preservation of indigenous traditional know-how, which gives added value to the products.”
The indigenous population of Cambodia is, as Kilian describes, “the poorest of the poorest,” and is struggling to adapt to the modern world. Customarily, indigenous people make their living off their land, which until recently was relatively separated from the rest of the world. This land gave them food security, biodiversity, the power to bargain, and the ability to govern themselves. They benefited from non-timber forest products, but the prevalent deforestation has been detrimental to the wildlife population, and increased climate change.
As the progressive economic system has grown, encouraged by the mindset of nation-building and development, the indigenous territories have been targeted by businessmen who see opportunities to commercialize the land. Many indigenous people lose their land to loan or contract farming schemes, often selling goods through third parties who take the majority of profits and leave little for them. “They live off small agricultural activities and by selling their labor to plantation owners, and are now faced with constant pressure from the outside,” Kilian stated.
Consequentially, the indigenous people are marginalized, and their traditional livelihood practices such as cultivation of forest areas and pastoralist activities, are viewed as opposing development and obsolete.
In addition to losing precious resources and income, the marginalization has resulted in a considerable loss of culture. CISP works to preserve the traditional knowledge that is left. “Although their performing arts, basket and textile weaving or pottery making skills have survived, the indigenous people generally don’t have entrepreneurship skills and therefore have a hard time with costing, pricing, marketing and negotiation,” Kilian explains.
The program even contributes to the empowerment of women. Focus groups conducted by CISP have shown that since women are able to generate an income, they are seen as having more importance within their households. With this program, the indigenous people are able to regain bargaining power, strengthen their economic and social position, and do not have to bend to the fluctuating market prices, allowing for there to be hope for a reconciliation between Cambodia’s indigenous people and the developing world.