Rolling hills, forests, abundant wild-life and indigenous tribes: Ratanakiri is one
of Cambodia's most unique provinces. But with development knocking at its door, many
are concerned about how to keep it that way. Charles Graeber reports on efforts
to protect the land and culture of highland tribes.
In the Pali language,
"Ratanakiri" means "jewel mountains", referring to both the gem-rich
hills and the verdant forests which cover them.
This richness has sustained the eight indigenous tribes of Ratanakiri, who account
for about 70 percent of the population and live today much as they have for hundreds
of years. And now this same richness threatens to unravel their social fabric and
strip them of their identity.
While the Tampuan, Jarai, Kreung and other ethnic groups have lived in the same areas
for centuries, few ever imagined needing to obtain legal title to their ancestral
lands, relying instead on a community understanding of borders and communal property.
But without legal verification, they have little means to protect their farms and
villages from being bought out from under them.
Land speculation is booming in this northeastern province, particularly in the more
populated central plateau. The rich volcanic soil is low in land mines, high in gems
and gold, and ripe for crops such as oil palm, rubber, coffee, and cashews. In the
provincial capital of Banlung, speculators, cash-crop farmers and lowland Khmer homesteaders
are all staking claims on the new frontier.
These forces, combined with logging concessions, have many concerned about the future
of the province's indigenous people and its environment.
"I think they will strip all the trees," predicts a glum Kep Chuktema,
Governor of Ratanakiri. "In the town, back yards, everything. We will have to
change the name of the province. It can no longer be a reference to valuable hills.
Everything will be gone."
The governor should know. He approved controversial logging deals late last year,
granting three logging companies rights to transport up to 29,000 cubic meters of
already felled timber from Ratanakiri to Vietnam. Two of the concessions were authorized
by the co-Prime Ministers.
"The government says we are the ones destroying the forest but actually it's
them," said one Kreung farmer. "The big people are cutting the forest and
making us poor. They should follow their own laws."
Ratanakiri is a province at the crossroads, where Cambodia meets Laos and Vietnam
and where Khmer law comes into contact with ethnic minorities whose customary systems
of land tenure and swidden agriculture render them virtually legally invisible.
According to a March 1997 study prepared by the Inter-Ministerial Council on Highland
People's Affairs, tribal highlanders could, theoretically at least, be denied legal
Khmer citizenship. While the Constitution guarantees equality before the law for
"every Khmer citizen", the legal status of ethnic minorities is precariously
unguarded. Christophe Horvath, of the United Nations Center for Human Rights in Cambodia,
says it is conceivable that ethnic minorities could be expelled as immigrant aliens.
While there has been no move to take such drastic action against the "Khmer
Loeu", or highland Khmer, there has been little move to guarantee them the same
rights as lowland Cambodians.
Local aid workers in Ratanakiri say highland cultures are poorly understood by government
officials, who sometimes regard them as backward or primitive. Officials have not
recognized the traditional land system of many highlanders, who maintain a communal
sense of ownership of their farm plots and forests. While village elders can precisely
identify the boundaries of villages - with streams, mountains or other geographical
landmarks serving as de facto borders - legal recognition is another matter.
"My people don't understand these words 'environment', 'traditional land', 'land
tenure'," says Say Loeun, a Tampuan. "It is time for people to wake up."
Gradually, the highlanders are doing so. A series of seminars have been held by international
and local aid and development groups, with government and provincial participation,
to share ideas and raise awareness about tribes' land rights. Most recently, in March,
a Highland People's Program Regional Workshop held in Phnom Penh reviewed a draft
government policy which advocates hope will provide a potent legal tool to protect
their land and culture.
But it is a race against time. There are fears that - just as governor Kep Chuktema
predicts there will be no trees left in the province - there will be little left
to protect by the time effective legal safeguards are in place.
"I see private enterprise as the future here - everyone wants some sort of development,"
said Ken Riebe, of the International Development Research Center (IDRC) which is
working to conserve newly-declared protected areas as eco-tourism sites. "The
idea is to find some middle ground between development and the rights of those on
whose lands this proposed development is to happen."
Pressures on tribal lands come from inside the community as well. In some cases,
young villagers sell communal lands to Khmer lowlanders who are moving here. "People
see the things which are coming to the modern marketplaces of Banlung town and they'd
like them too," says one aid worker. "MSG, salt, bows for the hair, pretty
dresses and motorbikes."
Sometimes it is village elders who sell, not understanding fully that their thumbprint
in exchange for $50 or $100 may result in permanent loss of ancestral lands.
More often than not, though, land is being lost through the government-granted concessions.
It was concessions which originally put Ratanakiri on the map, just as they now threaten
to take it off. Contracts in the 1980s with Vietnamese logging concerns renovated
the existing hydro-electric plant in O Chum District, provided district buildings
and paid for rehabilitation of Highway 19, the bone-jarring artery from the heart
of the northeastern forests to the Vietnamese border.
Today, loggers, cash-crop farmers and other developers are again offering cash or
infrastructure in return for slices of Ratanakiri.
Perhaps the biggest threat to the region, say some, is a massive logging contract
given to the Indonesian firm Macro-Panin in Oct 1995. The 30-year concession to 1.4
million hectares includes all of Ratanakiri's Central Plateau and even the 12 provincial
Filipino staff hired by Macro-Panin recently arrived in the province to begin to
inventory the hardwood for harvest. While local forestry officials await the required
management and environment impact assessments, local observers say that the first
cuts are already being made.
In addition to this were the three concessions approved by the Phnom Penh government
and Ratanakiri Governor Kep Chuktema late last year. Two of the contracts - giving
the Kikimex and Reaksmey Angkor firms concessions to transport a total of 24,211
cubic meters of timber to Vietnam - were approved by the two Prime Ministers. The
third concession, an economic exchange agreement between Ratanakiri and Vietnam's
Gia Lai province, authorized the Vietnamese company Lam San Mot to take 4,740 cubic
meters of timber.
The third deal was an apparent bid to yield the province some cash before the resources
are gone. None of the contracts permitted fresh logging, only the movement of already
felled timber, but whether provincial authorities attempted to enforce this is unclear.
Throughout last December, Highway 19 was clogged with trucks full of logs on their
way to Vietnam, ending with the Dec 31 national logging ban.
As well as logging, the development of commercial farms for coffee, palm oil and
other crops are also dependent on the clearing of large tracts of land.
The most controversial example is a Malaysian-Cambodian joint venture, approved by
the Prime Ministers in 1995, to develop 20,000 hectares of farmland and forest for
a palm oil plantation in Ratanakiri's O Ya Dao district.
The deal - involving three firms with links to government officials including Kandal
MP and army general Lay Y Pisith - created problems with the community almost immediately.
Many Jarai villagers accepted 90,000 riels per hectare of land they cleared for the
joint venture, but complained of intimidation and of having to move their homes.
An article in January this year in the Khmer-language newspaper Rasmei Kampuchea
, confirmed by other sources as reliable, found that the concession would displace
4500 people from their lands while employing only 400. Today, due to labor difficulties
between the company and villagers, laborers have been imported from Kompong Cham.
From the start, the companies involved - Men Sarun Palm Oil, Rama-Khmer International
and Malaysian palm oil exporter Globaltech - have said the project would bring ample
jobs and wealth for the local people.
This is at the heart of the debate in Ratanakiri; advocates of economic development
claim that plantations mean prosperity for hill tribes. But others say that, without
adequate information and the ability to make choices freely, the highlanders are
open to exploitation.
Already, there are signs that the traditional system of farming is under threat.
Local aid workers say that tribal villagers' fallow lands, mistaken for abandoned
lands, have been claimed and developed into plantations without permission from the
villagers. With less and less fallow land available the agricultural system breaks
These lands, while seemingly abandoned or unused, are essential to the highlanders'
system of swidden agriculture, in which a plot is burned, farmed and left fallow,
regenerating the soil until it can be farmed again. Researchers say the system -
commonly called "slash and burn" agriculture - is sustainable, providing
that there is enough land to go around.
One Tampuan farmer interviewed outside of Banlung recently explained that although
the quality of his crops was declining rapidly after four years of farming in the
same place, he could not find a new plot to move to. "There is no place to go,"
he said, squatting with his curved shoulder ax and gazing out at his scattered crops.
"So I stay here."
As well as plantations and logging, highlanders will also be squeezed in by flooding
from six proposed hydro-electric projects on the Sesan and Srepok rivers, including
the "Lower Sesan No. 3", one of the largest dams proposed for Cambodia.
Unlike massive business concerns with contracts signed by the government, most tribes
have no legal documentation of their land ownership.
That may be about to change. The Inter-Ministerial Council on Highland People's Affairs,
comprising officials from 10 ministries, has been deliberating for over a year on
a policy to provide legal protections for tribes people. A draft policy - considered
at the Highland People's Program Regional Workshop - aims to guarantee a raft of
environment, land, agriculture, culture, health and education rights for highlanders.
It includes that their traditional lands be identified and recognized by the government,
and monitored by village committees.
If approved, the policy will become a government sub-decree. While the policy has
yet to be finalized, the wording of the current draft is promising, say its advocates.
"If the draft goes through, it provides a framework for the legal recognition
of traditional village boundaries, so that transgressions could not happen without
village community consensus," said Gordon Paterson of the Non-Timber Forest
Products Project (NTFP), which works with tribal groups.
Already, there are provisions in the 1992 Land Law that highlanders could use to
obtain land title, according to NTFP Researcher Sara Colm. Individual farmers could
apply for private title to up to five hectares of agricultural land, or entire villagers
could register as an association and apply as a group for title to communal farmland.
While the idea of communal titles seems to be favored by many tribes, to date no
precedents have been set for whole villages to apply for title.
Despite such legal provisions, in Ratanakiri many villagers lack knowledge of the
laws, are only semi-fluent in Khmer, and cannot afford the titling fees. To date,
the Ratanakiri Land Titles Office has granted 1,301 land certificates, most of them
going to Khmer and ethnic Lao.
Significantly, land titles would not cover forest areas which they rely on to collect
essential products such as resin, honey, rattan, wildlife and bamboo.
A final option is for highlanders to apply for long-term renewable community concessions
to both their farmland and forest areas. The Ministries of Environment and Agriculture
are currently drafting a sub-decree permitting associations to enter into such contracts,
and precedents for this have already been set in Takeo and Svay Rieng.
Hopes run high for approval of new safeguards of land rights at both provincial and
national levels. "There seems to be a political will to legally establish traditional
user rights by the governor," said Ken Riebe of IDRC.
Both Prime Ministers, meanwhile, have voiced their support for the highlanders, pledging
that the government will not allow any investment projects in northeastern Cambodia
to threaten the livelihoods and cultures of the hill tribes. Second Prime Minister
Hun Sen recently visited the province's protected Yeak Laom lake, as has the co-Minister
of Interior Sar Kheng. Local MP Bou Thong, an ethnic Tampuan, is currently calling
for the formation of a Parliamentary Highlander's Association.
Given such high-level support, the Inter-Ministerial Council's permanent secretary,
Seng Narong, is optimistic. "The Prime Ministers set up this council to study
the situation," he says. "They have made their support of these issues
a matter of public record. I am confident that they will ratify our proposals."
However, skeptics claim that there is little substance behind such political glad-handing.
They say the Macro-Panin contract was signed only by the Minister of Agriculture
but with implicit approval from the Prime Ministers. Official proceeds from past
logging operations, they claim, were paid to Phnom Penh, with little cash trickling
back to the province.
But the policy-forming process, some believe, has sent a signal that if the Prime
Ministers are serious about supporting indigenous livelihood and culture, they'll
have to deal with the issue specifically and legally.
"They'll have some very specific questions to answer from here and abroad,"
said one organizer of the April workshop. "The issue is being forced. They'll
have to reconcile their supportive speeches with some specific supportive legal measures.
It may not provide the answers, but it does bring into the light the important questions."
This question was perhaps best phrased in the workshop's capping address by Prince
Sisowath Pean Rath, a ministerial representative of the Ministry of Rural Development.
"As members of the government," he said, "we say that this is Cambodian
land and belongs to the Cambodian government. But the problem is, the indigenous
people have lived on this land before the government was even born. So whose land