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They've lived on this land for centuries, but now companies are taking it away

By Oxfam
Indigenous people in northern Cambodia are working to gain legal title to their communal lands, but it is a long and expensive process. In the meantime, private companies are snatching up vast areas of forest and farmlands on which local people rely for their livelihood. Photo: Savann Oeurm/Oxfam America

Indigenous farmers in northern Cambodia face the loss of their forests and farmland to foreign companies.

Written and reported by Clara Von Bismarck-Osten and Savann Oeurm

Klong Chavan, 53, says his home province has seen dramatic change over the years. “Ratanakiri is very different now from when I was a kid,” he says. “We had no good roads, no motorbikes, and no cars on the street, no people coming into our village.” He says it was not easy just to visit the closest neighboring village. “We had to walk for long time… we would never go in the forest alone because of the boars and tigers.”

It’s hard to believe Chavan’s description. When you travel to Ratanakiri now it is on newly asphalted roads. Instead of forests, you see regimented plantations of rubber trees everywhere. The once densely forested hills now look more like a plucked hen with few feathers left over. Mines, rubber plantations and logging interests are driving the province’s natural resources boom. The indigenous people like Chavan—an ethnic Kreung—still represent 75 percent of the population in Ratanakiri, but they are losing their land at an alarming rate.

Throughout Cambodia’s turbulent history, the families of the Krueng indigenous community have managed to maintain their cultural identity. They have a spiritual relationship with their land, forests, and water on which they rely for survival.

On his four hectares (nearly 10 acres) of farmland, Chavan grows rice and cassava. This land represents a significant source of income and food to him. “We depend on the land to farm vegetable crops. We won’t have any food to eat if we lose our land.” Chavan said.

Forests are important to all indigenous people in northern Cambodia. Chavan hunts and collects rattan, honey, fruits, wild vegetables, firewood, and traditional medicinal plants from the village communal forest. “Instead of having to buy kerosene for making fire, my family and I used to collect resin from the forest. We also sold it to the other villagers,” Chavan explains.

The indigenous owners have over generations developed extraordinary land-management practices that allow them to harvest forest products sustainably. They do not threaten biodiversity but, in most cases, manage it well.

But the recent battle over who owns the natural resources is compromising these relationships. Companies are buying up tracts of land in Cambodia’s remote province. The Vietnamese company named Hoang Ahn Gia Lai (HAGL) is one of the biggest investors in Ratanakiri. Their seven land concessions cover an area of more than 50,000 hectares (122,500 acres) that overlap with 17 villages, including Kreh, Chavan’s home. On their website, HAGL claims that “the people from these communities were overjoyed at the aid provided by the company, highly appreciating the implementation of their commitment to investment and development of the projects.”

Klong Chavan: “All my ancestors lived on this same land without having any land title. We always thought it was ours.,” Photo: Savann Oeurm/Oxfam America

Government owns most land

For most of the indigenous communities of Cambodia the government is the official owner of the land. “All my ancestors lived on this same land without having any land title. We always thought it was ours,” says Chavan. The registration for communal land title is a long and complex procedure for which farmers need knowledge about laws and the ability to read and write Khmer. Without land titles, indigenous communities like the Kreung lack any legal power to prevent the company from taking their land.

By clearing the community’s “spirit forest,” where the Kreung people bury their ancestors, as well as their farmlands, the company is violating the rights of indigenous people to self-determination and a means to earn a decent living. This is at odds with HAGL’s publicly stated goal of “alleviating the people’s hardships.” Local farmers say that depriving them from their main source of income without their consent, is worsening their hardship.

Farmers in Kreh report the company made “donations” of 50kg (110 pounds) of rice and two boxes of instant noodles to every household in the 17 communities affected by HAGL land concessions. Fifty kilos of rice hardly replaces the tons of rice Chavan could produce on his four hectares of farmland.

Oxfam is working with an organization called Non Timber Forest Products (NTFP) to help communities like Kreh to register for communal land titles. Kreh is now in the last stage of the registration process of 62 hectares (152 acres) of farmland, and another 138 hectares (338 acres) of protected forest for the nearby Poy commune. Being conscious that the first step towards change is to make people aware of their rights, NTFP offers trainings on land laws and complaint methods. NTFP also plays the role of mediator between the affected communities and the companies, translating, arranging meetings and advocating on behalf of the communities for defence of their right to free, prior, and informed consent, which is a protected right of indigenous people under international law.

Since December 2013, Oxfam’s partners (including NTFP and the Highland Association), together with other local NGOs in Rattanakiri, have helped indigenous people to urge HAGL stop further land clearing in the 17 villages for one year. HAGL has kept that commitment for now more than a year and recently postponed their clearing activities for another six months as they work towards an agreement with the villagers and NGOs.

Ratanakiri's once-vast forests are being cleared for growing commercial crops like rubber trees, leaving indigenous people without access to forests and farmlands. Photo: Savann Oeurm/Oxfam America

NTFP and HA have encouraged solidarity among the affected communities, so that they can be more effective in negotiations with the company. Each village elected one representative responsible for participating in negotiations with the company, and reporting back to their respective villages. The 17 village representatives meet three to four times a month to follow up with each other and discuss their next actions. “In principle, we want to see affected indigenous people develop internal solidarity within and between the 17 villages to negotiate with the company to resolve the conflicts,” says Lay Khim, a program officer for Oxfam in Cambodia. “It’s their right to demand proper solutions based on their tradition and self-determination.”

With the help of NTFP, HA, and others, the villages filed a complaint to the World Bank, which has invested $16 million in the company that owns HAGL. The Bank committed to oversee a dispute resolution process involving the company and affected communities and urged the company to consult with the villagers in a transparent way and adopt a fair compensation policy.

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