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How a remote village in Cambodia is claiming its rights to its sacred forests

Glen Poch, 28, with her nephew in Taing Se. She says her village has the right to manage their communal lands. “I don’t want anyone invading these lands.” Photo by Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America.

With training and legal support, indigenous people in remote areas are defending their lands and natural resources.

In the farthest northeast corner of Cambodia, past the Se San river and a few kilometers from the Vietnam border, is a village of 237 indigenous Jerai families called Taing Se. Most of the area even in this most remote corner of Ratanakiri province is being clear cut, burned, and replaced by rubber trees and cassava, but there are still some forests around Taing Se.

Most people here derive considerable economic benefit from the forest, so they feel its loss. “I am concerned there is more and more development in the area,” says Glen Dean, a 28-year-old farmer who grows rice and vegetables. To him, the prospect of “development” is not always positive—he says it could potentially take away his means to make a living.

Indigenous people across the northern provinces of Cambodia are working to consolidate their communal land rights, but the government is conceding vast forest areas for plantations and other economic activities before many villages can stop it. Photo by Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam America

In Taing Se, the ethnic Jerai farmers are concerned that development may come in the form of a mining company called Angkor Gold, from Canada. It wants to explore for gold, and possibly start mining there, which will affect forest lands, agricultural fields where people grow rice and cashew nuts, and water sources.

People here are against the idea: Glend Veng, 67, one of the elder farmers in the village, has a blunt opinion: “We say no to mining, it takes away our land and forest.” Villagers say there are other threats: They hear the government has made a land concession to a Vietnamese company that overlaps their communal land as well.

Forests are valuable

The forest is a valuable economic resource here in northern Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province. Villagers of indigenous communities—Tompoun, Jerai, Kreung, Ka Chok and many others—gather food like fruit and bamboo shoots, mushrooms, leaves, and medicinal plants. They harvest wood and rattan for building their homes and making furniture and handicrafts. They tap trees for resin they sell to lacquer producers. They also hunt, which Veng says he would particularly miss if the forest is all cleared. “More importantly,” he says, “the wild animals will be gone.”

Glen Poch, 29, works with her family on five hectares of land where they grow cashews and a variety of other crops. She sees the loss of forest and agricultural land as nothing short of a threat to their culture. “I just want to have a normal life and practice our cultural ways of living,” she says in a small meeting of villagers.

For Poch, a “normal life” includes hunting and gathering in the forest. Indigenous farmers are accustomed to rotating their fields periodically, allowing the soil to recover and forest to regrow. It’s a method they have used for centuries, but pressure from outsiders looking for land here in Ratanakiri means farmers have less and less land they can use in this way.

Poch also says her village has an area they call a spirit forest, where they pray, make sacrifices to their ancestors, and carry out other religious practices. Every village’s spirit forest is an essential part of its identity, and a crucial manifestation of its culture. Taing Se also sets aside forest areas for conservation, and for burial grounds.

“I want future generations to have all this,” Poch says, calmly but also with a certain determination. “And I don’t want anyone invading these lands.”

Ethnic Jerai girls in Taing Se. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America

Poch and others in Taing Se received training on their land rights, and support to file for their communal land title, from the Indigenous Community Support Organization, operating in partnership with Oxfam. It is part of an Oxfam initiative designed to help indigenous people understand their rights when negotiating with companies and government, and to protect and manage their natural resources. The project is working with 10 organizations helping indigenous communities in the northern provinces of Cambodia, fishing communities along the Mekong River, and people living in and near national parks in Vietnam’s central highlands and southern Lao PDR.   

People in Taing Se have a certain strength: They understand their rights and are in the process of protecting them by filing for a communal land title, which they will use to maintain control over their forest and agricultural areas. Poch says a communal land title will make it easier for them to protect their land. “We can’t sell our land, we can only transfer it to other villagers,” she says. “So we will not move even though the company is coming here. We have the right to live on this land.” 

Learn more about Oxfam’s Natural Resources and Rights work, and find out what you can do to help.

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