Representatives of the Chong ethnic minority in Cambodia’s Areng Valley filed petitions on Wednesday requesting official recognition.
Ten villagers representing more than 200 families in the remote Koh Kong province area near the Cardamom Mountains filed the petition to the Ministry of Rural Development, the prime minister’s cabinet and the United Nations.
“Our Chong ancestors have been living here in Areng for a very long time. We have traditions, culture, costumes and ways of living in a community,” the petition reads. “We have faith in spirits and [practise] slash-and-burn planting following our ancestral traditions.”
The application requests official recognition from authorities, with community members claiming they made a similar request at the commune level a year ago, but local officials did not allow the request to advance.
“The local authorities, they do not register us, because they said we did not have our own language. And he said he’s very busy and cannot sign for us,” said community representative Hoeng Pao.
“We will decide what to do after Khmer New Year,” said Yim Chung, a representative at the Ministry of Rural Development.
“Despite the Chong language being all but forgotten in Areng, the valley is unique in that animist traditions, dependence on nature for livelihoods, etc. are stronger than anywhere else in the country,” Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, the founder of the environmental group Mother Nature, said in a message.
According to a profile of the community by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, the Chong have lived in the Areng Valley “since time immemorial”.
“Many were displaced during clashes with the Khmer Rouge,” the profile continues. The Chong then returned after the ultra-Maoist group’s collapse in 1998. Today, the Chong face a new challenge in the form of hydropower dam construction and other developments.
Chak Sopheap, director of CCHR, said “indigenous groups are the first victims of Cambodia’s fast-paced destruction of forests”, as they often are more reliant on natural resources.
“Recognition as an indigenous community would allow the Chong group to apply for a collective land title . . . providing them with land tenure security and therefore protection from land-grabbing and displacement,” she explained.
Sopheap said the process must be sped up and simplified. Only 18 out of 458 communities have been given collective land titles as of July 2017.
Gonzalez-Davidson alleged the process is purposefully complex and expensive, so that the government and private sector can continue stealing land from indigenous groups.