A senior environment official called for calm after indigenous women’s communities urged relevant ministries and institutions to address their concerns by including their input into the draft amendments to the protected natural areas and forestry laws.

On January 25, representatives of indigenous communities from provinces across the country held a press conference in Phnom Penh on issues and challenges facing minority women on the implementation of the law and the new draft law on forests and protected natural areas.

A statement from the indigenous communities’ representatives stated that the conference was held to raise public awareness of the situation and the specific needs of indigenous women as land, forest and natural resource defenders.

“This conference also calls on the relevant and competent authorities to pay attention and provide specific interventions to the victims of the land, forest and natural resources protectors as indigenous women,” the press release said.

On that occasion, Fang Champey, vice-president of the Cambodia Indigenous Women Association (CIWA), said that Cambodia’s indigenous peoples have traditions, customs and lifestyles that depend on land and natural resources, including their religious ceremonies that have encouraged respect for the forest, mountains, lakes, streams and waterfalls since ancient times.

She said that according to each geographical location and way of life, the leadership is well known by the elders in the village through sharing from generation to generation for a long time.

Champey described the problems and challenges of indigenous women: “Our lives, livelihoods and beliefs have changed dramatically in terms of land security. And the loss of this land has led to the loss of livelihoods, social security, happiness, identity and culture. In fact, many communities have not yet been able to register collective land or have not owned enough land to do so and have had problems with investment companies and conservation projects.”

In addition, a serious challenge is that many indigenous women face charges and imprisonment for using and protecting their collective lands, which do not yet have a title deed although their community is recognized as a legal entity and has temporary protection measures, authorised by the provincial administration.

“The factors that lead to these problems are because the implementation of the law is not yet fair and equitable for indigenous peoples. The willingness of some ministries to understand indigenous peoples is still limited, leading to the implementation of conflicting laws between the preservation and development law and the law recognising indigenous land rights.

“Apart from the challenge of enforcing the law, our indigenous people are also concerned about new legislation that would deprive indigenous peoples’ rights, which could lead to more problems,” she said.

She urged representatives of ministries, provincial authorities, embassies, civil society organizations and all development partners to share, listen, make recommendations and consider community proposals to intervene for women and indigenous communities.

However, environment ministry spokesman Neth Pheaktra said that indigenous communities should not worry too much, as relevant institutions have been careful to protect their interests by making laws on their behalf as well as laws on forests and laws on protected areas.

“They should not be overly concerned about what they are advised. The legislature and the executive have been very careful in protecting the interests of the people, including the indigenous peoples of Cambodia. They have the same rights and freedoms as other citizens,” he said.

Currently, a new draft law on forestry, fisheries and protected areas is being authored by working groups at the ministries of Interior; Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries; Justice; and Environment.