THE number of land disputes involving ethnic minorities in the Kingdom doubled between 2008 and 2009, the Indigenous Rights Active Members (IRAM) rights group said this week, urging the government to protect minority communities from being taken advantage of in the land-concession process.
Oum Meang, deputy director of IRAM, said his organisation had recorded 14 land disputes involving minority groups this year, up from seven in 2008.
“Ethnic minority organisations want the government to register ethnic lands collectively in order to reduce land-grabbing,” he said Monday.
Oum Meang also said that the government has failed to monitor the effects of land concessions once they have been granted.
Ros Han, the IRAM representative in Kratie province, said the government must do a better job of registering the land of indigenous people and consulting them before economic land concessions are granted.
But Ty Sokun, director general of the Forestry Administration at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said that although “opportunistic people” had occasionally taken advantage of minority groups in land cases, the government has been transparent in dealings with them.
“There is no way that we don’t hold discussions with people. We have never taken people’s land for an economic land concession without prior consultations with them,” he said. “Forested land is state land.... The land we give in economic land concessions is unused or eroded land.”
Although IRAM recorded a rise in land disputes involving minority groups, Ny Chakrya, head of monitoring for the local rights group Adhoc, said the overall number of land disputes in Cambodia declined from 2008 to 2009. Adhoc recorded 306 such cases nationwide last year, and although figures for this year have not yet been finalised, Ny Chakrya said there had been about 200 cases.
Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Centre, explained that ethnic minority groups are especially vulnerable to land-grabbing because they often lack knowledge about their land rights and the legal system, and because the communal land-titling process has been slow.
Although the Kingdom’s 2001 Land Law states that “no authority outside the community may acquire any rights to immovable properties belonging to an indigenous community”, Yeng Virak said that many such communities had yet to register their land, and that enforcement of land protections has been scattershot.
“On one hand, the law recognises their way of living – that means nobody can touch their area, their land. However at the same time, we also see that there have been business interests or powerful interests encroaching on their land, and they don’t have any way to protect themselves,” he said.
“They don’t have communal land titles … like normal citizens.”
Members of minority communities, particularly those who are illiterate, have often been bribed and tricked into signing away rights for their land without realising it, said Pen Bonnar, an Adhoc official experienced in land disputes involving ethnic minority communities.
This is particularly problematic, he added, as many ethnic minority groups have a tradition of communal land use, meaning that the effects of a deal signed by one individual can ripple out to the whole community.
To date, the government has given away more than 1 million hectares in land concessions, Ty Sokun said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JAMES O’TOOLE