or generation upon generation, Cambodia’s indigenous peoples have lived off the fruits of the forests while also growing their own crops. But the next generation of indigenous peoples in the Southeast Asian nation may no longer enjoy the same setup as swathes of land their communities have occupied for decades are seized by private entities — backed by authorities — and large tracts of forest are cleared.
Such activities have become so common that there seems to be no end to protests of indigenous groups over the loss of either their land or nearby forests — sometimes even both. There are also land disputes between private companies and indigenous peoples’ communities that have gone on for years.
Roeung Khan, who belongs to an indigenous peoples’ community living in Tbeng Meanchey district in the northern province of Preah Vihear, says that for the last decade, they have been protesting against a land grab by a Chinese company. The company came and claimed their land in 2012, clearing the forest in the area and destroying an ancient temple in the process. But the authorities apparently have yet to take any action despite complaints from the indigenous peoples’ community.
“We are the land owners, but now we are facing severe food shortages due to lack of land to till,” says Roeung Khan. “Some people have taken to borrowing money from private banks, and we all have some diseases in our bodies, but we have no means to make a living. What are we expected to do?”
In Mondulkiri in the east of Cambodia, Phloek Phirum says that the lives of the indigenous peoples there have been upended by rampant forest crimes and land-grabbing in the province’s state-protected wildlife sanctuaries.
The head of the Mondulkiri Indigenous Community Network, Phloek Phirum says that forests where indigenous peoples once foraged for mushrooms and harvested wild fruits and vegetables were cleared by authorities and a private entity in 2019. The indigenous folk were also evicted from their homes, but they have been fighting back through formal protests, says Phloek Phirum.
“While we were protesting, I and four other villagers were sued by a group of traders at the Mondulkiri Provincial Court,” she says. “They are charging me with inciting the perpetrators, as well as of illegally gathering protesters, and accuse me of destroying private property.”
“Land is life, forest is market”
Mondulkiri and Preah Vihear are among the six out of Cambodia’s 24 provinces where most of the country’s indigenous peoples live. The four other provinces are Ratanakiri, Kratie, Stung Treng, and Kampong Thom. There are between 18 and 24 distinct hill tribes in Cambodia, with an estimated total population of 400,000, or just a little more than two percent of the country’s 16.8 million people.
“Indigenous communities in Cambodia are remarkably dependent on agriculture and forest areas for their livelihoods and for the survival of their cultural identity which is, among others, expressed in the traditional slogan: ‘land is life, the forest is a market’,” wrote researchers Rattana Pen and Chea Phalla in a 2015 paper on indigenous groups and land-grabbing in Cambodia. “Beyond this, land issues gain an even greater importance as the land itself has spiritual significance, which often articulates itself in situations where indigenous peoples’ access to land or forests is being hampered.”
“While there is a general belief that spirits reside throughout the landscape,” the researchers explained, “each community has several spirit forests that are considered particularly powerful. It is believed that misfortune can result from not treating these areas with respect, which has given rise to several ‘taboo’ systems governing the activities undertaken in spirit forests. Such rules often control the exploitation of natural resources, the cutting of vegetation as well as hunting and fishing activities. Spirit forests also serve as important components of an indigenous community’s cultural and religious life.”
According to the two researchers, Cambodia’s indigenous groups manage a total of about four million hectares of the country’s forests. Neth Pheaktra, secretary of state of the Ministry of Environment, meanwhile says that Cambodia has 7.3 million hectares of forest, equivalent to 41 percent of Cambodia’s land area. He says that these are protected areas and biodiversity corridors, of which the Kingdom has 76. About 100 locations are ecotourism destinations, he adds.
Yet a January 2022 report by the rights group Amnesty International said that Cambodia lost nearly 2.5 million hectares of tree cover between 2001 and 2020. The report actually focused mostly on the protected areas of Prey Lang and Prey Preah Roka, both of which have a significant population of Kuy, an indigenous group. In 2021 alone, Amnesty said, a total of at least 6,271 hectares were deforested in these areas due to illegal logging.
Global Forest Watch, for its part, says that Cambodia lost 141,000 hectares of natural forest just within 2021.
Profits instead of forests?
“Rampant illegal logging in Cambodia is posing an existential threat to the country’s remaining primary forests, and the indigenous peoples who depend on them for their livelihoods, their culture, and their spiritual practices,” said Richard Pearshouse, Amnesty International’s Head of Crisis and Environment, in an article posted on the organization’s website.
“Time and time again,” Pearshouse continued, “government officials who are supposed to be protecting these precious forests are instead profiting from their destruction by allowing the illegal logging trade to flourish.”
But Neth Pheaktra says that in an effort to prevent natural-resource crime and forest land encroachment, including deforestation and wildlife crime, the Ministry of Environment has been cooperating with development partners and conservation partners to create a local economy and change the habits of those who enter the forest to fell trees and hunt wildlife illegally.
“The Ministry of Environment will continue to take measures to prevent encroachment and encroachment on land in protected areas,” the official asserts. “In the past, we have cracked down on illegal encroachment on state land in the Kbal Chhay multi-use area of Sihanoukville, as well as cracked down on encroachment and land clearing in Monivong Bokor National Park.”
Net Chhaya, chief of Sokdom commune in Sen Monorom City, Mondulkiri, also says that while land issues and forest crimes still occur, authorities and civil-society organizations have been working to resolve these without exception.
“We will continue to work hard to resolve this issue because forest issues and land disputes have really affected the lives of the people,” says the commune head. “So we have to deal with it as quickly as possible.”
Scrambling to be heard
Soeng Senkarona, spokesman of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), says that he has noticed some attention on these issues from authorities lately. But he says that the efforts fall short of what is needed by the people affected by the land-grabbing and deforestation. As a result, many indigenous peoples have been forced to go hungry or leave the place where they had lived for decades.
“Escaping this forest encroachment has affected people’s right to freedom of life, affected people’s livelihoods,” says Soeng Senkarona. “The forests they used to benefit from have been lost and they also lost their livelihoods.”
Smaller green patches
A snapshot of Cambodia’s forest cover loss as of 2021.
(Source: Global Forest Watch. 2021. World Resources Institute. Accessed on October 18, 2022. The image was modified to focus on Cambodia.)
This is despite the fact that they are supposed to be protected by Cambodia’s own Law on Indigenous Peoples, as well as the International Law on Indigenous Peoples. Among other things, Article 25 of Cambodia’s Law on Indigenous Peoples provides for collective land ownership for indigenous communities, while Article 26 recognizes the role of traditional powers, mechanisms, and traditions in decision-making and the exercise of property rights. There is the also 2001 Law on Indigenous Land Management.
The country, though, also has a 2001 Land Law that attaches great importance to the registration of communal land, as stated in Articles 23 to 28. This is where many indigenous communities run into trouble because the process of having their land registered is complicated, tedious, and expensive.
Yet, Phloek Phirum, who is also the leader of the Pounong Indigenous Peoples in Mondulkiri, has been hard at work trying to get 30 hectares of forest land registered as her community’s collective plot. She has also been urging the authorities to prevent forest crime and illegal encroachment on about 70 hectares of state-owned land nearby.
Recently, indigenous peoples’ groups have been lobbying to have their views considered by those tasked to review the draft amendments to the 2008 Law on Protected Areas and the Forestry Law. Among their requests is that both laws define “indigenous peoples” or “indigenous communities” separately from “local people” or “local communities” because, they argue, these are different from each other.
Other requests from the indigenous peoples’ groups include specific provisions on “‘Governance of legal nature rights’ such as rights to areas and locations use, based on traditional practice, rights of religious beliefs, and worship beliefs of indigenous peoples,” as well as on on “’a collective agreeable mechanism for full and fair consultation’ by participating in the zoning of customary tenure rights based on the actual situation of indigenous peoples.” ●
Hay Setha is a freelance journalist from Cambodia.