Indigenous peoples in the northeast are fighting to hang on to their land as private companies target the forests and resources they, and their cultures, depend on for survival.
“For us indigenous peoples, the land and the forest is like our market,” says Oreyu Train, commune chief of the indigenous Kreung Village in Ratanakkiri.
“We have no market like Khmer people. We go to the forest to collect. Our survival depends on it. We need to manage our land here if our future generations are to keep our traditions and culture alive.”
Oreyu’s Kreung community are among the many indigenous communities who have been fighting a lengthy battle to secure the titles of the land that they live on and protect their resource-rich territory from the threats from private companies and others. Indigenous communities comprise about 3 per cent of Cambodia’s population.
Land is uniquely important to their way of life and identity, yet in recent years indigenous peoples in Cambodia have increasingly come under threat from deforestation, mining and agricultural businesses implemented through often controversial government land concessions.
In 2001 the National Assembly of Cambodia enacted a law covering land management, which recognises indigenous communities and their traditional land for registration under communal titles. In 2007, the government adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples.
In addition, in 2009 the Royal Government of Cambodia adopted three pieces of policy papers named National Policy on Development of Indigenous peoples, Policy on Registration and Use Rights to Land of Indigenous Community, a sub-decree on procedure for registration of indigenous community land.
The implementation of this legislation and these policies has so far, made significant headway in responding to the needs and priorities of indigenous communities.
The government has undertaken the community identification and registration as legal entity aimed at communal land titling and other development initiatives.
As of January 2012, 153 indigenous communities are undergoing the process of land titling under the ILO program in collaboration with other partners. Thirty of these are already registered as legal entities, meaning that they are in the last stage of the land titling procedure; the rest are under way.
Oreyu Train’s Kreung community is one group hoping that government moves can translate to land security and an improved livelihood. Made up of 110 families, they have resided on their territory, Pi Village in Lahoc commune, since 1982. Their community is among the 30 or so which have had their identities recognised by the Ministry of Rural Development, meaning that their culture and traditions are acknowledged by the authorities – but the key indigenous priority of land registration still evades them.
Indigenous peoples remain among the most marginalised in Cambodian society.
Years of having their rights sidelined and their access to both opportunities and key services restricted means that they have fallen behind the national average in many crucial areas of development. When their land is sold or taken indigenous peoples tend to end up working as labourers or in other low-paid jobs, the communities are separated and culture is eroded. Without recognition that the land is theirs to cultivate it is impossible for them to elevate themselves out of poverty.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the forested, dusty hills of red earth Ratanakiri where the majority of the province’s population is indigenous.
Among the most impoverished poorest areas in the country, infrastructure is weak and amenities are few. Three quarters of the population is illiterate and almost one in four children die before reaching the age of five. Indigenous women, children and elders are especially vulnerable.
Kreung community chief Glim Pall, 61, is father to three surviving children of seven and grandfather to 10.
“Land is very important for us. If there is no land management, outsiders like companies can take over our land. A company tried to get our land for mining but we were able to protect it,” he said.
“A district authority told us that the letter we had sent stopped the mining company and now they no longer threaten us. Even though they are no longer coming we still worry.”’
The Kreung in Pi village have been working to achieve their land titles since 2004. An obstacle for them in this has been that they are illiterate and dealing with the paperwork involved in the process is hugely challenging for them. This is just one of the key areas where the ILO and Indigenous and Tribal peoples – support to Indigenous peoples project has assisted the Kreung and other groups.
Main activities have focused on promoting and facilitating the registration of indigenous communities land rights within the framework of Cambodia’s 2001 Land Law. This includes training for indigenous communities as well as capacity building for national and provincial governments on the rights of indigenous peoples.
Since 2005 this project has worked to assist indigenous groups in areas including non-formal education and rights education.
“Our hope is to get the land title as soon as possible, we need it to protect our land from companies,” said Ray’uan, a young Kreung man from the village.
The contrast between the rundown, impoverished conditions of the Kreung community and that of a neighbouring community that has had its land titles granted is striking. A 15-minute journey from the Kreung community across Ratanakiri’s broken hilly dirt roads is the La L’eun Kraen village in Ou Chum commune, Ou Chum district.
Last December 14th the Tumpoun people of the La L’eun Kraen village became one of the first three communities to receive land titles for their territory as part of a pilot scheme. The Tumpoun people have created a good livelihood for themselves by producing cashew nuts, raising and selling animals and selling traditional handicrafts.
“We have no worries of losing our land. Many things would happen if we had not received this land title such as encroachment by Khmer people or encroachment by private companies,” village chief Moch Ten said.
The process of receiving the title took six years with the community submitting its final application in 2009. Moch Ten says that the community was overjoyed when they heard that they were to be given the titles for their land. They celebrated in traditional indigenous fashion by making offerings, performing traditional dances and drinking rice wine.
“Our community has worked to protect our land for generations. Before, we had the challenge of the neighbouring communities and outside people trying to get the land. Land certification means that our land can be kept for the future. It means that our natural resources and our livelihoods are secure” says Moch Ten.
With the assistance of the ILO, NGOs and others, several other communities are taking steps to preserving their ancestral land and resources with more applications for land titles expected to take place throughout this year.
Although Chief Moch Ten is relieved for his own community he knows that their good fortune is still the exception rather than the rule.
“For us, we would like for the government to grant land titles to other communities. Our community would like to assist them as we know that many are having difficulties [in securing land titles].”
Glim Pall of the Kreung Village is uncertain of the future but still hopeful that his community will be as fortunate as his neighbours in La L’eun Kraen village.
He says: “The best solution for us is to get a land title, we are confident but not 100 per cent confident that we will get one in the future. We are encouraged when we hear about the success of other communities.”
Maeve Galvin is a former advocacy and communications officer for the International Labour Organisation.