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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Ethnic tribes in spotlight over land grab

Ethnic tribes in spotlight over land grab

THE push to develop Ratanakiri and open its natural resources to commercial exploitation

is threatening the survival of the region's ancient indigenous cultures. The Jarai,

the Krung, the Tampuan and the other ethnic minorities have long depended on the

forest for their needs.

For centuries, they have successfully practiced a rotational form of "slash

and burn" agriculture that requires large areas of land and a low population

density to be sustainable. But today, plans to develop the area and resettled demobilized

soldiers and low-landers are bound to seriously upset this delicate balance.

Problems have already begun to surface. By encroaching on hill tribes' ancestral

land to make way for large palm oil plantations and other cash crops, developers

are depriving indigenous people of their traditional means of livelihood, often without

offering adequate compensation or providing them with alternative ways of subsistence.

Discontent is on the rise.

Ethnic minorities, NGOs and provincial authorities alike are lamenting their lack

of participation in development decisions made by central government.

As a development expert with UNDP/CARERE put it: "It is important that we recognize

that culture does change as a result of development. But [development decisions]

should be based on people having access to information, skills and resources which

enables them to make free choices."

But according to provincial authorities, Phnom Penh has already signed several large-scale

agro-industry contracts with foreign investors and has awarded logging concessions

covering virtually the entire province, without prior consultation with the people

who will be directly affected by the plan.

Ratanakiri's outspoken governor, Kep Chutema, agrees with many international observers

and development experts: "Community development among the ethnic minorities

must be supported. It is their right to have access and participate in development,"

he says citing the thorny issue of land rights as a key factor in safeguarding Ratanakkiri's

cultural and environmental diversity.

"The scope of the land problem is small now, but it will get larger in the future,"

he says, adding that he intends to ask the Royal Government for full authority to

control the land law.

As in other countries in Southeast Asia, Ratanakiri's hill tribes do not legally

own the land they inhabit.

"The concept of individual land rights is not really existing in their culture,"

explains a development worker in Ratanakkiri.

"They don't really consider themselves to be the owners of the land, they consider

it's the land of their ancestors or it's the land of the spirits of the forest."

Human rights observers and development agencies have voiced concern over the absence

of a comprehensive blueprint to protect and preserve the region's forests, which

the hill tribes so heavily depend on for their livelihood.

"Protection of the environment is essential for the preservation of Ratanakiri's

ethnic minorities," said Justice Michael Kirby, the United Nations Special Representative

for Human Rights, during a recent fact-finding mission in Ratanakiri.

Kirby, who focussed his swansong trip on the Jarai problem, saying that recognition

of legal title to land occupied by ethnic minorities was essential to their rights.

Kirby said that the obvious difficulties could be overcome by appropriate laws.

"Cambodia should learn from the sad experience of the American Indians, the

Canadian Eskimos and the Australian Aboriginals," he said.

Lack of land title had been at the heart of the problems at Ratanakiri, he said.

"If there is to be an avoidance of the injustices to indiginous people and the

kinds of conflicts which arise out of injustices, there is a need for reform of Cambodian

land law and land title procedures," he said.

Phnom Penh officials maintain that the government will not allow any development

that would deprive the hill tribe people of their culture and livelihood.

However, in the isolation of these remote areas, powerful business interests and

the prospect of large profits are redrawing government policies, often resulting

in wide spread abuses against the local population.

In one instance, several Jarai villages in the province's eastern Oyadao district

have been stripped of land they have occupied for generations by a large-scale palm

oil development project.

Rama Khmer International and Men Sarun Palm Oil Company own the 20,000 hectare plantation

in partnership with Globaltech - a Malaysian palm oil exporter.

Lay Y Pisith - an MP for Kandal province and two star general - owns Rama Khmer and

has shares in Men Sarun's company.

One Jarai elder in Saum Trak, one of the villages whose land falls under Men Sarun's

concession, speaks of armed soldiers and open intimidation.

"The company came and told us that the authorities had already signed the contract

for the concession, and if we did not sign it there would be problems. They said

we had to sign it to make things easy."

In nearby Saum Kning village, Chief Yuch explains the frustration of the Jarai people

with development schemes drawn up in Phnom Penh without taking into account customary

land rights claimed by the hill tribes.

"People here can do nothing, because the company said that this area was given

to them by the government. They have never listened to our claim."

The company also seems unhappy with the deal.

Lay Y Pisith says that he has recently planted 30,000 trees in the area as part of

a $17 million investment plan. But he says that initial attempts to clear and claim

the 20,000 hectares granted by the Council of Ministers met with frustration.

"It's impossible," he says. "I claimed the land when it was covered

with forest. I paid someone to clear it and then the villagers came to claim it."

"So, I withdrew and cleared another piece, but the villagers came and claimed

that also."

Lay says he wants the villagers to work for him in the palm oil factory he intends

to build.

But villagers dismiss Lay's conciliatory tone, saying that when the company first

came, it brought in workers from Kompong Cham, and hired local people only after

the workers left over a money dispute.

When Lay's company finally resorted to hiring locals, the Jarai say the company exploited

and abused them.

"People are not happy because the company abuses our people's rights. They should

provide us with fair wages and should not owe our people's back salaries or threaten

us if we complain," says Chief Yuch of Saum Kning village, adding that soldiers

went as far as physically attacking district authorities who had embraced the Jarai's

cause.

Confronted with the testimony of the villagers in Oyadao's district, provincial authorities

remains skeptical.

"This government abides by its laws, and no investor can abuse hill tribe people.

It's true," says vice-provincial governor Bun Hom Oun Many.

"Development here will improve our people's standard of living and the people

will not have to face poverty and starvation anymore."

While officials maintain that development will bring progress and prosperity to the

hill tribes, experts argue that unmonitored development could backfire.

"Any development taking place on that land will certainly mean that they have

to dramatically change their style of agriculture or they have to become integrated

into the market economy. And evidence from other counties in the region shows that

integration into the market causes more poverty," says one development worker.

Whatever the impact of development in Ratanakiri, environmental experts warn that

large-scale development and uncontrolled exploitation of this region's resources

could have devastating consequences not only for the indigenous people of Ratanakiri,

but for the rural population of Cambodia at large.

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