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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Ratanakiri at the crossroads of land rights

Ratanakiri at the crossroads of land rights

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

"protected areas".

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

down.

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

is it?"

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