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Members of the Bunong indigenous community stop to buy ice-cream sandwiches in Mondulkiri province
Members of the Bunong indigenous community stop to buy ice-cream sandwiches in Mondulkiri province. Members of the community marched on Saturday to commemorate the UN’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. Hannah Reyes/Ruom

Indigenous groups an integral part of Cambodian heritage

Saturday marked International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous peoples bring a great diversity to the human family, in both traditions and knowledge. Cambodia is the home of 24 indigenous peoples’ groups spread across 15 provinces. This is reason enough to celebrate this day. These indigenous peoples have traditions, rights and differences that must be recognised and cherished in a democracy.

Consistent with its policy of putting human rights at the forefront of its work globally, the EU has supported the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People from the beginning.

This declaration also received clear support from Cambodia, which voted in favour of the declaration in the United Nations General Assembly. This commitment aims to strengthen indigenous peoples in the face of the challenges that socioeconomic change may bring to their way of life and, indeed, to their well-being.

I would thus like to reflect on my recent visit to Ratanakkiri, where I met several communities of indigenous peoples benefitting from projects funded by the EU. Most of the projects I visited were working with various indigenous peoples groups to improve their food security, protect their environment and assist them in the land-titling process to secure ancestral lands as communal land titles.

Ratanakkiri, as a province that is experiencing Cambodia’s economic development first hand and at full speed, clearly presents the need for a balanced socioeconomic development policy in which the interests of local communities and minorities can be heard loud and clear. Indigenous peoples have the right both to aspire to enter the formal market economy and see more jobs come to the region while simultaneously maintaining their unique identity and traditions. It is clear to me that the tension between the two is at times acute, but the EU endeavours to continue to support indigenous communities, government and civil society in finding the right balance.

A clear illustration of the balance is when one considers that Cambodia’s indigenous peoples possess a diversity of knowledge and traditions that are closely linked to another pillar of the Kingdom’s heritage: its forests.

At a ceremony presided over by the environment minister, five community protection area (CPA) agreements were signed by commune council chiefs of indigenous communities and by the Ministry of Environment, thanks to a long process in which the communities were supported by an EU- funded project. These to-be CPAs clearly show how empowering indigenous communities can contribute to the country’s development. With such rights and tutelage over traditionally important natural resources, indigenous communities have a vested interest in safeguarding their forests to maintain their practices and safeguard their identity.

To further facilitate the acquisition of these rights, it is essential that the Cambodian government simplify procedures that to this date remain a burden for any indigenous community hoping for a CPA. In some of these cases, merely getting an agreement signed took the community several years.

One of Cambodia’s most significant instruments for supporting indigenous peoples’ rights is the 2001 Land Law, notably the provisions for communal land titles.

One of the projects I visited is assisting vulnerable indigenous communities through the process so that they may secure a communal land title. Again here, procedures remain regrettably complex.

Thus indigenous communities – if they aren’t sufficiently supported by local authorities, ministries and/or NGOs – bear the unnecessary risk of an unsatisfactory settlement in the land-titling process and conflicts may arise. It is therefore important that indigenous peoples obtain from local authorities the land titles which can safeguard their communal space and the surrounding environment.

When discussing all these issues with community members, I sometimes required two translators: one translating from English to Khmer and another from Khmer to the community’s language. These indigenous languages are rich pools of local knowledge and history, thus it is important that they are preserved even while children attend government schools. The EU, as the largest aid provider to the education sector, is therefore very supportive of the government’s steps to promote bilingual education in schools, thereby allowing local indigenous languages and knowledge to survive through formal education.

The richness of the knowledge these different indigenous peoples bring to Cambodian society can be an asset for the country’s development. Indigenous peoples are an integral part of Cambodian heritage and society. They must be able to benefit from the fruits of economic growth and greater job and education opportunities without giving up their identity and inherited knowledge. It is important that Cambodia’s development harness and safeguard the diversity and riches of its most precious asset: its people.

Jean-François Cautain is the European Union ambassador to Cambodia.

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