The provincial government on Tuesday ordered the creation of a forum in a bid to find a resolution in the 10-year land dispute between 12 ethnic minority communities in Ratanakkiri province and Vietnamese agribusiness giant Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) over 20 ancestral “spirit mountains”.
Soy Sona, director of Ratanakkiri province’s Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, told The Post that the authorities had organised a forum to coordinate land concessions between HAGL and the indigenous people but had yet to give the land to them.
“This work is done only if we send a letter to the government for the disputed land to be inspected. Economic land concessions have already been invested with land titles. The province will make requests and reports to the Ministry of Agriculture,” he said.
“Today’s decision represents an unprecedented recognition of indigenous land rights over business interests in Cambodia. We commend the government for doing the right thing and putting people’s interests first,” said Dam Chanty, the executive director of Highlanders Association, in a press release by Inclusive Development International.
In a workshop on Tuesday, the Ratanakkiri provincial governor requested the Ministry of Agriculture to demarcate 64 disputed areas – including spirit mountains, wetlands, traditional hunting areas and burial grounds – for indigenous people to practice their beliefs, religion, traditions and cultures, and to support their livelihoods.
The communities have been locked in the dispute over ancestral lands since HAGL was granted the area to develop large-scale rubber plantations.
They filed a complaint in 2014 with the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO), the independent watchdog of the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC).
The 2014 complaint related to IFC investment in Dragon Capital’s VEIL fund, which bankrolled HAGL’s agribusiness ventures in Cambodia and Laos.
The communities are being represented in the complaint by three Cambodian and indigenous people’s organisations – Equitable Cambodia, Highlanders Association and Indigenous Rights Active Members – and global human rights organisation Inclusive Development International.
“We are very happy for our ancestors that we are getting back our sacred lands. But our struggle will not end until the company restores the forests and streams that it destroyed and compensates our communities for all that we have suffered,” said Sev Seun, a community representative from Kak village.
Eang Vuthy, the executive director of Equitable Cambodia, said the land was adjudged to belong to the indigenous communities in a decision made by the CAO with participation from provincial administrations, provincial departments, companies, communities and land dispute NGOs.
While the communities hailed the government’s decision, they also filed a new complaint with the CAO last week, citing new financial ties between IFC and HAGL.
The communities lodged the second complaint after HAGL pulled out of the CAO mediation process before reaching a final agreement with them on issues of land and water rehabilitation and compensation.
The communities are calling on HAGL to return to the negotiating table to resolve the issues.
“HAGL must respect its past commitments to the affected communities and resolve their outstanding grievances."
“The problem won’t end until HAGL repairs all the damage it caused, so we hope that IFC’s clients will encourage them to go back to the mediation table,” Vuthy said.