Three ethnic Jarai minority communities passed a crucial hurdle on the way to obtaining communal land titles in government-sanctioned ceremonies this week. But a human-rights activist tempered the celebration, saying mass deforestation in the province had already stripped most of the land the villagers are claiming.
Chhay Thy, co-ordinator for the human-rights group Adhoc, applauded the Ministry of Interior for recognising the O’Yadav district communities as legal entities, the second of three application steps on the road to communal land titles.
But after attending a ceremony yesterday in Korng Yu village, he said 70 per cent of the forests in the province had disappeared since 1979.
“Only 30 per cent remain, because the minority people have sold the lands to rich people; some lands have been grabbed illegally, and others have been dominated by the land concessions,” he said.
“When they are listed with a community forest, there will be no forest to list.”
Am Veasna, a political affairs officer who represented the Ministry of Interior at the ceremony, declined to comment.
Chheng Vantheoun, chief project co-ordinator of the Indigenous Community Support Organisation, said the listing helped maintain the culture and tradition of minority groups.
Korng Yu villagers face another obstacle in the form of a long-standing land dispute with Finance Minister Keat Chhon’s sister, Keat Kolney.
The Jarai community filed a complaint to the provincial court in 2007 over an alleged grab of 400 hectares of their land. The case could complicate their quest for a communal land title.
Moeun Tola, head of the Community Legal Education Centre’s labour program, said yesterday villagers had been waiting for court action.
“The defendant has power, so no one dares to take legal action. But when the minority group gets title over the disputed land, of course it can help them.”
Pov Den, a participant in yesterday’s ceremony, said he hoped titling would come soon, “because our community has less than 50 hectares of forest. Before, we had more than 100 hectares.”