An Ancient Ecology
To exist in that rugged topography and harsh rainy seasons and ensure the survival of subsequent generations, the hill tribes shaped their lifestyles around sustaining all renewable resources.
They overcame the poor soils through swidden farming. Hunting and fishing provide animal protein and serve as backup in case of crop failure. Non-timber forestry products provide other foods and materials for housing and tools. The primary or evergreen forest is left intact for gathering activities while farming is confined to the secondary or deciduous forests. Their existence is largely carbon neutral.
For everyone to have adequate forest access and farm fields to rotate, they live widely dispersed in small hamlets. The primitive living conditions cause high mortality rates and short life spans which constrain population growth. Barring an influx of migrants causing overpopulation, their land allocation system remains sustainable.
The hill tribes had little contact with outsiders until the late 13th century. The first intruders were Cambodian soldiers from the Khmer Empire who took many as slaves for the “holy city” of Angkor. Thai, Lao, and Cambodian slave traders continued preying on highlander villages for 500 years.
In the early 1800’s French missionaries began converting the most accessible hill tribes to Christianity. The missionaries referred to them as “Montagnards,” the French word for highlanders.
France soon colonized the economic hubs and most productive areas of VN, Cambodia, and Laos. In the Central Highlands of VN they employed Montagnards as plantation workers and servants but did little else towards their development.
It wasn't until the early 1950's that the accessible and prominent Montagnard tribes acquired written languages. French missionaries developed Romanized writing systems based on tribal phonetics. However tribes in the most remote areas still don’t have written languages today.