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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Indigenous groups urge action on land

Members of the Bunong indigenous people gather in an area sacred to their community in Mondulkiri province
Members of the Bunong indigenous people gather in an area sacred to their community in Mondulkiri province on Saturday as part of the UN’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. Hannah Reyes/RUOM

Indigenous groups urge action on land

Ethnic communities called on the government to make good on outstanding promises to protect community forests on Saturday, during celebrations for International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

Cambodia has 24 ethnic minority groups that comprise an estimated 1.4 per cent of the population, according to NGO Forum, which helps protect indigenous land rights.

Indigenous communities are not mentioned in the constitution and were not acknowledged by any legislation until the 2001 Land Law granted them the right to establish communal land tenure.

Crowds gathered in Kratie, Mondulkiri, Koh Kong and Preah Vihear on Saturday decried the government’s slow progress; so far, only eight communal land titles have been allotted to indigenous groups.

Meanwhile, as of last year, economic land concessions covered over 2.2 million hectares – almost 65 per cent of Cambodia’s arable land, according to Licadho.

“While the communities wait to be recognised, they are losing their land to ELC companies’ projects,” NGO Forum executive director Tek Vannara said.

A government moratorium on new ELCs has been in place since 2012, though rights groups have noted that land disputes have only intensified since then.

Before ethnic minority villagers can seek land titles, they first need to be officially registered by the government as an indigenous community. There are currently 99 recognised communities but no estimate of how many remain unregistered, Try Meng, secretary of state at the Ministry of Rural Development said.

Seventy-six communities have been suggested for registration, and the government intends to register 10 communities per year for the next four years, Meng said. “We need time to study and examine their identity before we recognise them officially,” he said.

Indigenous villagers, however, say they’re tired of waiting.

“We need the government to recognise us officially,” said Kha Sros, a Kouy ethnic villager. “We don’t want our culture to disappear.”

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