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Monday, January 20, 2014

Traditional Cultural Properties in Cambodia


Julia Wallace, Executive Editor of the Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh, had an interesting op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times -- see http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/18/opinion/workers-of-the-world-faint.html?_r=0.  It’s about garment factory workers in Cambodia who have been experiencing mass fainting incidents on the job.  The faintings are attributed to the workers' possession by neak ta – spirit beings who are angry, in the cases cited, because the construction of the garment factories uprooted banyan trees in which the spirits reside.  A neak ta, according to Wallace, is “strongly associated with a specific natural feature – a rock, a tree, a patch of soil.”

In the United States, of course, a neak ta’s rock, tree, or piece of ground would – if everyone was paying attention to the relevant guidelines – be identified as a traditional cultural property, probably eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and subject to consideration under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), as well as in environmental assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  The Cambodian faintings illustrate why such consideration – which ought to feature respectful consultation with those human beings who believe in neak ta – is a good idea.

Maybe you believe in neak ta or some equivalent (e.g. Elves in Iceland, ancestor spirits in China, Coyote or other spirit-beings in North America).  Or maybe you suspect as Wallace seems to that the fainting epidemic is a device for drawing attention to poor working conditions and low wages among garment workers.  Or maybe you’d rather say it’s all nonsense and the workers are just finding a clever way to slack off.  Whatever you believe, you surely ought to acknowledge that whoever built the garment factories set their operators up for problems by failing to consider impacts on the neak ta and their trees. 

Would it have been so hard to consider those impacts?  To talk with the people of the surrounding community before designing the factory, finding out what they valued in the environment, and trying to do something about it?  In one case Wallace mentions, the enraged neak ta apparently could have been mollified had there been “ritual propitiation” and “apology.”  Would this have been so hard to arrange?  And shouldn’t such consultation and efforts to mitigate the construction project’s impacts be a central part of good planning?  Even if the power of neak ta is wholly in the heads of the garment workers, wouldn’t it be wise to put the workers’ minds at rest, before they start passing out over their sewing machines?

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