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Guardians of land, forest, and culture

Romam Chuk is an ethnic Jarai community leader in Ket village. Photo: Soleak Seang/Oxfam

Indigenous communities in northern Cambodia can’t live without their forest lands, so Oxfam is helping protect them.

“We live and farm on our ancestral land, and find food in the forest,” says Bun Chealy, 36, an indigengous Jarai woman in Ket village, a community of 225 families near the Cambodia-Vietnam border. “A lot of our traditional practices are attached to this land.”

Indigenous Jarai people in this village worship the earth, mountains, rivers, and their sacred forests. There, they conduct traditional rituals and ceremonies. This community has strong cultural, spiritual, and economic ties to their ancestral land and forest. They passed down these resources from one generation to another for centuries.

In 2007, 7 Makara Phary, a company receiving a government Economic Land Concession (ELC), started clearing land to grow rubber trees in Ket. The concession covers 8,654 hectares (more than 21,000 acres) spanning five villages—including 2,000 hectares (4,940 acres) in Ket.

Villagers quickly gathered to stop the company when it was clearing their native vegetation and felling big trees they used to worship.

Conflict over this land dragged the company and community into multiple confrontations, including an incident when villagers burned down a company tractor in 2012. For years, their persistent protests against the company were met with threats.

“They threatened to throw us in jail if we continued to farm on our ancestral land,” says Romam Chuk, 52, a father of nine children and an ethnic Jarai community leader in the same village. “We were afraid, but we were left with no choice. How can we live without our land?”

Despite no public data, local non-profit ADHOC estimates that the Cambodian government has granted more than 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million acres) of land to private companies under the ELC scheme, designed to develop intensive agricultural investments in the country.

A man uses a motorbike to move timber near the border with Vietnam. Oxfam’s partners in this area say there is a lot of illegal logging, with a steady stream of the timber smuggled into Vietnam on motorbikes. Photo: Soleak Seang/Oxfam

In 2012, the government issued a directive to address the country’s land issues, some of which were caused by the overlapping areas between ELCs and community lands. As a result of the policy, the government reduced the size of 7 Makara Phary’s ELC, and awarded 750 hectares (1,852 acres) back to the ethnic Jarai community in Ket.

Ket village is at the lower end of the Virachey National Park and is known for its fertile red soil, favorable for growing crops, and home to indigenous Jarai Cambodians.

Like other indigenous groups in Cambodia, the indigenous Jarai community in Ket village didn’t give up their fight. Their persistent efforts to protect their ancestral lands paid off.

With the support of Oxfam’s partner’s Indigenous Community Support Organization (ICSO), which asists indigenous communities withdefending their natural resource rights, Ket villagers quickly organized themselves and sought help from their Parliamentary representatives and local government.

Through a project titled People Protecting Their Ecosystem in the Lower Mekong (PEM), Oxfam is working with local NGOs, such as ICSO to support indigneous communities through community organizing, and building their capacity to report threats and defend their communal land and forest. The project is funded by Margaret A. Cargill Foundation and Oxfam, and is working with ICSO to assist seven indigenous communities to file for Communal Land Titles (CLTs), a legal mechanism under the Cambodian Land Law that recognizes indigenous people's rights to land and natural resources. 

Fending off encroachment

For indigenous people, the struggle is not over—far from it. There are now new companies and powerful individuals trying to reap the benefits of their ancestral lands.

Vietnamese company Hoang Anh Andoung Meas is developing a palm oil plantation in the area. According to Bun Chealy, a Cambodian business tycoon has been buying lands from community members for a rubber plantation. And last year, a group of border police also came, felling trees and aiming to seal off an area of 50 hectares (123 acres) for their personal use. The community was able to chase them away.

Bun Chealy, lives in Ket village, a community of 225 families near the Cambodia-Vietnam border. Photo: Soleak Seang/Oxfam

“Over the last 10 years, we have lost about 70 percent of our land to companies and powerful individuals,” Chealy tells visitors in a small village meeting in a wooden raised house with a tin roof.

Now, they are working with ICSO to learn about their land and natural resource rights, and apply for a CLT, a more secure way to protect their ancestral land and forest resources.

Under the Cambodian Land Law, communal land is made up of residential areas, agricultural lands, spirit forest, burial grounds, and reserved land for future generations. Land held in communal title can only be transferred among indigenous community members. 

Smugglers and transporters

Dark clouds hover over Ratanakiri, pouring rain every morning for the last 10 days. The red dirt roads leading to Ket village from Banlung, the capital of the province, are muddy and slippery. A four-wheel-drive vehicle crawls slowly and sometimes gets bogged down in deep mud holes, sending passengers out into the rain to push it out.

Rays of the sun break through the cloudy sky around noon and dry up the soil. Motorbikes modified to carry big loads of timbers are omnipresent along the village roads.

They stop for help at steep hills when another motorbike arrives with a rope to pull them up. Chealy says these timbers are heading to the Vietnam border to be sold.

“We do forest patrols, but some loggers can still get away,” says Romam Chuk. “In 2016, we stopped two cases of illegal logging, confiscated their chainsaws and made them sign an agreement that they would stop.”

He says the forest is dwindling and could be completely wiped out in a few years if forest destruction continues at the current pace.

One of their strategies is working with neighboring villages to report illegal activities on their lands, and organizing communities to rotate their farms to areas along the borders of their communal lands.

“We go to our farms frequently and if we see anyone cut down our trees or clear our land, we will know and we can report to our committee to take action,” says Romam Chuk.

Through ICSO, Oxfam supports communities like Ket to protect their natural resources as a means to protect their ability to make a living. “Indigenous people are the best guardians of the forest and land, as they not only depend on their natural resources for their livelihood, these forests also hold significant spiritual value,” says Sophoan Phean, Oxfam’s PEM project manager. “Indigenous people and their land and forest have an interdependent relationship,” she says. “They can’t be separated.”

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