Montagnards, sons of the mountains

by Luca Catalano Gonzaga

Economically dependent upon shifting cultivation and supplementary trade in forest products and local handicrafts, Degar or Montagnard people live in scattered settlements, having been forced to leave their lands in the highlands of Vietnam. Montagnards, as the French used to call them, are mostly Roman catholic, as a result of early French missionary activity in the mid-XIX century when France established colonial authority over Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, collectively called Indochina. The Montagnards have always been considered the newcomers, both colonial officials and Vietnamese merchants, and unwelcome intruders. Even though the number of French colonialists and planters in the highlands increased, the presence of ethnic Vietnamese remained minimal throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The situation changed when the defeat of the French in 1954 led to the division of Vietnam and the Highlands became part of the American supported South Vietnam. Central Highlands became a strategically important region where Americans developed military camps and recruited Degars to fight the communist forces. The fall of Saigon in 1973 ended American participation in the Vietnamese war. Since then the Degars have suffered political, economic and religious discrimination, often seeking refuge in churches.These pictures, by Luca Catalano Gonzaga have been taken in the villages close to Kon Tum, the city of Vietnamese Catholicism. Its Roman Catholic Wooden Church has a garden nearby, where there is a replica of Michelangelo’s Pietà which  stands as a symbol of the Degar’s faith and resilience who are committed to protect their own identity. Other photos include some of the 127 Montagnard families who had to leave the valley at the foot of the Daklin hydroelectric dam where the water has now invaded what was their land. The central government has granted these families, as well as $10,000 as compensation for having been forced to leave their villages, also $ 15,000 to rebuild a house and water, free food and electricity for four years, the time needed to start a new existence. Not all have been foresighted; for many families having such a figure has generated an irrepressible push towards unnecessary expenses (home appliances, motorcycles, TV). The small fortune that would have allowed them to start again, often has ended up in smoke and today there are many who find themselves without a home or a small piece of land to cultivate. (text by Luca Catalano Gonzaga).

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