“A company started to clear the forest to plant rubber trees. They just came without consulting us, there were 200 people clearing land, cutting trees, and they brought tractors to level the land,” says Leam. “Villagers here don’t want people to come take our land. We want our land to benefit us, it’s our ancestral land.”
The land is where he and his neighbors grow rice and vegetables for their families to eat. It’s where they gather bamboo, fruit, and resin to sell. And they harvest its wood to build their homes. Aside from the obvious economic benefits, the forest has other value to the Jarai: It’s where they worship their forest spirits, their ancestors are buried there. Their entire existence, their culture, is part of the forest. Bulldozing a “spirit forest” is an unthinkable tragedy for a village.
To defend their forests, indigenous people across the highlands of Cambodia are using legal channels to establish communal land titles, or CLTs. Leam says Phi filed for its CLT in 2011. But before the village finished the process, a Vietnamese company intent on planting rubber trees arrived in 2012 with its own competing permit, an economic land concession, or ELC. Granted by the government, these concessions are meant to promote foreign investment and fuel Cambodia’s $US17 billion economy which has been growing at more than seven percent annually.
Land conflicts such as the one in Phi are pitting indigenous people and their leaders against powerful economic and political forces, and most agree the companies have had the upper hand. Opposing them is dangerous: Outspoken land rights advocates work under the threat of murder. Leam says his last discussion with company representatives ended with them telling him they intended to take over the forest: “No matter what you do, one day it will belong to us,” they told him.