Phnom Penh: March 2, 2022 –World Monuments Fund (WMF) announced that the “Cultural Landscape of the Bunong People” has been named to the 2022 World Monuments Watch, a selection of 25 heritage sites of worldwide significance whose preservation is urgent and vital to the communities surrounding them. These sites powerfully demonstrate pressing global challenges of climate change, imbalanced tourism, underrepresentation, and recovery from the crisis, underscoring the need for greater action to support heritage places and the people who care for them.

The Bunong are an Indigenous community of the Mondulkiri province in northeastern Cambodia, whose way of life is 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. The Bunong serve as essential human stewards of this rich cultural landscape through their continuous cultivation of crops and traditional forest management practices.

This living landscape and Bunong way of life is 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 villagers from Bu Cheeng calling the spirits in front of their altar (filled with gifts) in the context of the wer-brii-wer-nam ritual, Bu Sra area. April 2019. Catherine Scheer.

For the first time, the Bunong Indigenous Peoples Association, a local civil society group, plans 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. Through the 2022 World Monuments Watch, World Monuments Fund (WMF) calls for greater awareness and supports efforts to use heritage preservation as a tool for strengthening Indigenous rights.

Launched in 1996 with founding sponsor American Express, the Watch is announced every two years and includes heritage places nominated by individuals and community-based organizations across the globe. The program has been a proven tool for raising awareness of sites in need of protection and galvanizing action and support for their preservation. To date, WMF has contributed more than $110 million toward projects at more than 300 Watch sites, with the visibility provided by the Watch helping communities leverage an additional $300 million from other sources.

Two Bunong traditional houses, Bu Lu village, Bu Sra commune. April 2008. Catherine Scheer.

Neth Prak, Bunong Indigenous Peoples Association said, “Being on the Watchlist makes this site is 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 history. 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.”

“Saving irreplaceable cultural heritage has never been more important,” said Bénédicte de Montlaur, President and CEO of WMF. “The daunting global challenges facing heritage in the twenty-first century require innovative, sustainable, and replicable solutions. 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.”

Representing 24 countries and nearly 12,000 years of history, the 2022 Watch encompasses a broad range of examples of how global challenges manifest and intersect at heritage sites, providing opportunities to improve the lives of communities as they adapt for the future. The full list of 2022 Watch sites is available online here, with elaboration on themes below:

  • Climate change: As global warming continues to intensify, innovative methods and traditional knowledge are necessary to mitigate its impact on heritage places.
  • Underrepresentation: Inequities in heritage result in oversight and neglect of many significant places. Greater efforts should be made to amplify narratives that tell a more textured, just, and complete story of humanity.
  • Imbalanced Tourism: Both overtourism and lack of visitation endanger heritage places and often sideline or disrupt local communities. Sustainable tourism strategies are needed to recalibrate these impacts and ensure just outcomes for residents.
  • Crisis Recovery: Armed conflict, natural disaster, and other types of destruction can cause irreparable damage to heritage places and communities. Community-led preservation efforts can participate in building resilience and regenerating the social fabric in places affected by the crisis.
Braan-rock (volcanic mountain), featuring in several Bunong legends, Bu Sra area. Sept. 2010. Catherine Scheer.

About the Bunong Indigenous Peoples Association
The Bunong Indigenous People Association (BIPA) is a local association created by indigenous Bunong. Together we work on building a secure future for our communities and our lands. We are a grassroots organization in Cambodia that aims for better livelihoods for Bunong indigenous people in a fastly changing environment. To face serious challenges such as the enforced loss of land and natural resources, BIPA works in partnership with the local government and local organizations to find culturally and socially sensitive technical solutions to adapt to the current agricultural system; protect the remaining forest resources, and support inclusive educational initiatives for the Bunong. BIPA focuses on strengthening the capacity of the Bunong to navigate this period of intense change and is committed to supporting equality and unity within its communities.

About World Monuments Fund
World Monuments Fund (WMF) is the leading independent organization devoted to safeguarding the world’s most treasured places to enrich people’s lives and build mutual understanding across cultures and communities. The organization is headquartered in New York City with offices and affiliates in Cambodia, India, Peru, Portugal, Spain, and the UK. Since 1965, our global team of experts has preserved the world’s diverse cultural heritage using the highest international standards at more than 700 sites in 112 countries. Partnering with local communities, funders, and governments, WMF draws on heritage to address some of today’s most pressing challenges: climate change, underrepresentation, imbalanced tourism, and post-crisis recovery. With a commitment to the people who bring places to life, WMF embraces the potential of the past to create a more resilient and inclusive society.

Photo by: Catherine Scheer