The killing Elephant

The dead owner lay right in front of our small cacao farm in Sre Ampom, in the hills of Mondulkiri, Cambodia. He should have known better. His male elephant had already been unpredictable, restless and aggressive for the past week. The bull was in what they call a ‘musth’, a natural phenomenon which involves a rise in the reproductive hormones in the elephant’s body. The animal had become totally uncontrollable and had finally focused his aggression on his owner.

It resulted in driving one of his tusks with full force right through the chest of the poor guy. The animal didn’t care less and, after his act, started to roam around. Luckily he didn’t decide to enter our farm. It took three more days before the elephant calmed down and before the community was able to capture him again. My business partner Chanthol saw the dead young man lying on the ground. He could look right through the left part of his chest. The deceased was a member of a tribal community called the Bunong.


The Bunong are considered to be the largest indigenous group in Cambodia, with an estimated  20,000 members. As with most other indigenous communities in Cambodia, the traditional Bunong distinguish themselves through language and religion. The latter is a form of animism centred on forests, combined with ancestor worship. Most of the Bunong live in the province of Mondulkiri where our company is running two cacao farms as well as a cacao nursery and fermentation centre.

Bunong and Khmer get along well, as long as it concerns Khmer who adheres to Buddhism (there are also Christian and Islamist Khmer). About one-third of our employees on our farms are of Bunong origin. And we are assisting eight independent Bunong farmers to grow cocoa. We can’t say that it is a run race to convince these farmers that cacao can be a life changer for them.

Four of them are taking the task seriously. The rest is more or less neglecting the cacao despite the free cacao seedlings we provided and despite a complete irrigation system that an NGO built for them. Maintenance tasks like pruning are not in their portfolio. It is probably the old mindset that is playing tricks on half of them, the idea that trees in a forest need no maintenance either.

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One of the other 24 tribal communities in Cambodia is the Krung, in the neighbouring province of Ratanakiri. And it is interesting to observe that here cacao growing for independent farmers is even better received.

The first hopeful signs were there when we unloaded the cacao seedlings. Not only the specific farmers helped to unload, but the whole village. This time, the seedlings were paid for by DPA, another NGO with a focus on agriculture.

All the five farmers helped each other plant the seedlings. And every time we revisit for extra guidance, it is raining questions. They seem a bit more proactive and interactive than their Bunong counterparts.

Maybe this is the result of a remarkable tribal practice in which parents build tiny ‘love huts’ for their mid-teens daughters and encourage them to have different boys spend the night with them until they find one they want to marry. According to research by Louise Quail, this different approach creates a surprisingly romantic and interactive society where teenage girls are confident in dealing with boys and have a powerful sense of what they are looking for in a relationship. Divorce here is extremely rare, and rape is virtually unheard of.

Whatever it might be, we can cautiously conclude that Krung cacao farmers are slightly more successful than Bunong farmers but certainly more successful than Khmer farmers in the Mondulkiri province.

Malaysia Cocoa Board

The success with the Krung gave us the idea that, in general, farmers with an indigenous background might be more receptive to growing cacao. Knowing that Malaysia has more than three million indigenous people and because we have a small distribution hub in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, we started discussions on cacao with the Malaysian Cocoa Board (ILKM).

The LKM has been around for more than half a century and houses a wealth of research material on cacao. Although Malaysia has completely fallen back as a producer of cacao (in the late eighties, Malaysia was still good for more than 200,000 tons of cacao, now only 500 tons), this institution has fortunately survived. The LKM encourages us to contact cacao farmers in the Borneo part of Malaysia: Sabah and Sarawak.

​Orang Asal

Almost 14% of the Malaysian population consists of indigenous groups, which are collectively called ‘Orang Asal’. These Orang Asal include no fewer than 97 different tribes, most of which are located in Sabah and Sarawak. And as we understand, most of the existing cacao farmers in Sabah and Sarawak are Orang Asal. Hopefully, next year, in collaboration with LKM, we can encourage even more Orang Asal farmers to start with cacao. The key to success will be a good price incentive, something that is clearly lacking at the moment. Existing cacao farmers in this part of Malaysia are sometimes selling their cacao crops for prices even lower than the London Cocoa Price.

300 hectares

Meanwhile, the Malaysian Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities is also eyeing cacao development in North Borneo  Normally, the focus of the MPIC is on palm oil, but now they are considering the development of 300 hectares in Sabah. Rightfully so, perhaps, they are not making a distinction between indigenous and Malay farmers for this project. However, we think that the greatest chance of success will be with farmers of one of the many tribal communities in Sabah.


In the course of the past few years, our search for new cacao farmers slowly drifted in the direction of indigenous farmers. As described above, not every indigenous farmer is suitable, but taking stock, members of tribal communities seem amenable to a successful approach to cacao farming.Some of them are gripped by an enormous willpower and determination to make cacao an integral part of their lives. For them cacao is more than just a crop. It becomes a part of their family. Almost like elephants are a part of the life of some Bunong families.

When I was once in the very primitive prison of Mondulkiri, I was allowed to speak to a Bunong guy about his experiences in jail. He was halfway through his period of 10 years for his role in a tribal black magic murder. He was the owner of not one but two elephants. Knowing about the insane corruption of the Cambodian judicial system and knowing about the high value of an elephant, I asked him why he had never sold one of his two elephants back then and used the money to bail him out. It would have saved him 99% of his prison time. He looked at me half smiling but at the same time with a penetrating mixture of regret, sadness, love and determination. After a few seconds, he decided to answer my question with a question that left me speechless: “would you have sold your sister?”

Written by Stefan Struik, founder of Kamkav Farm in Cambodia

Asian Indigenous People Act
Louise Quail
HuRights Osaka
Malaysia Cocoa Board
Borneo Post

Publication by Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact (AIPP), the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) and Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), Chiang Mai 2010

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