Defending land and life in Cambodia

Ratanakiri province in Cambodia is losing its forest resources at an alarming rate, and indigenous communities that rely on them are sometimes affected in ways that threaten their livelihoods and culture. Photo: Patrick Brown/Panos for Oxfam

Indigenous communities that live amongst the forests of Ratanakiri are facing land grabs and deforestation at an alarming rate. Chris Hufstader, Oxfam America, recently spent time in northern Cambodia to further understand the impact of foreign investors and national companies using the traditional lands for profitable business ventures and how communities are defending their rights. 

Defending land and life in Cambodia

The forests of Ratanakiri province have been supporting indigenous families for centuries. Now, foreign investors and national companies are keen on reaping profits from indigenous lands. As villagers learn to defend their rights, the stakes couldn’t be higher: at risk are individual lives and an entire culture.

There’s a village called Phi, home for 160 families, high on a bank above the Sesan River in northeastern Cambodia, right on the Vietnam border where the river suddenly fish hooks north and west. In the dry season, the Sesan moves slowly below the village, rocks visible just under the surface of the clear waters. Late in the morning, the sun presses down on the village, forest, and river.

Like most ethnic Jarai villages in this part of the country, Phi has a simple, wood-frame longhouse for village meetings. Inside, Sev Leam, 37, recounts the current crisis in Phi: Like many other indigenous communities in this northern Ratanakiri province, this one is in danger of losing its land.

 No matter what you do, one day it will belong to us.

A resident of Phi, Cambodia, recounting the parting words of rubber tree plantation workers about the fate of the village’s forest

Sev Leam is the deputy chief of Phi village in Cambodia’s northern Ratanakiri province. He says his ethnic Jarai community filed to get a communal land title in 2011, and is still waiting for the government to survey Phi’s lands and issue their title.

“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.

An ethnic Kaveat woman rides her bicycle through the Virachei National Forest near Cambodia’s border with Laos. Even protected areas can be vulnerable to land grabs by powerful economic and political forces in Cambodia.

Communities at risk: 5.2 million acres already gone

Post-apocalyptic landscape

Anyone driving on the main roads in Ratanakiri can see the effects of the ELCs: In many areas, the ancient hardwood forests are gone, replaced by rubber trees. Sunlight flashes through the rows as you motor past. Cassava plants, similarly ordered but lower to the ground, roll over the gentle hills like a green blanket. Some formerly forested areas recently bulldozed, logged, and burned have an end-of-world look about them: A few charred tree trunks remain standing, others are heaped on the ground. Masked workers hack at them with axes while ashes whip around in the dry-season winds.

Leam says he has seen these devastated areas in other parts of Ratanakiri. In Phi, he takes a short walk through the village burial area, motioning to where his ancestors are resting. It’s next to a 12-foot wide depression in the ground, a crater left from the so-called “secret bombings” by the US during the Vietnam War.

Leam describes the village struggle: The company had already knocked down their spirit forest when he wrote the provincial government asking it to intercede. While waiting, villagers blocked the bulldozers from tearing down any more of the forest. When government officials arrived, they demanded the demonstrations stop, and started investigating the village leaders.

Meanwhile, Leam has learned that the government has accepted Phi as an ethnic Jarai village, an important milestone in the struggle by local people to hold onto their land. But, Leam says, “We’re waiting for government officials to come measure the land that belongs to our community.” He can’t say how many hectares are at stake, just that “if you were to walk around our communal land, one day would not be enough. It’s very big.”

Ratanakiri province in Cambodia is losing its forest resources at an alarming rate, and indigenous communities that rely on them are sometimes affected in ways that threaten their livelihoods and culture.

Cambodia: Concessions and deforestation

The great debate in Ratanakiri

Oxfam’s partners in Ratanakiri include the Highlander Association (HA). The association’s mission is to make sure people in villages like Phi understand their basic rights as indigenous communities under Cambodia’s Land Law. The Highlander Association helps them navigate the difficult process to establish their status as an indigenous community, demarcate their territory, and register their communal land with the government. Training with the association and other Oxfam partners in northern Cambodia helps community leaders like Leam learn to negotiate with government officials and company representatives.

The arguments from the company attempting to operate in Phi are predictable: Leam says corporate officials tell him that preserving the forest will not develop the country, and that unless they let the company clear the forest the community will just remain poor.

“When I hear this, I do my best to fight them,” Leam says. He says his duty in the community is to “educate people about their rights and advise them … to trust yourself to improve your life, not the company.”

“They just want our forest, and you’ll just become their laborer,” he tells his neighbors in Phi.

A disturbing global trend: More than 1,000 killed since 2002

South and west of the Sesan River, a series of dirt roads lead to an ethnic Kachok village called Kanat Thom. The roads are so dry, powdery dust billows away from vehicles like mist, pink in the dawn sunlight.

Early in the morning, Kanat Thom is busy. Most people have already left to work in their nearby cashew groves, but many others are gathering near a generator powering a public address system playing music under two large trees. Dam Chanthy, the director of the Highlander Association, is greeting police officers, and representatives from the Ministry of Rural Development. Most importantly, Chanthy is waiting for representatives from Hoan Ang Gia Lai (known as HAGL), a Vietnamese company that began clearing about 115,000 acres of forest areas in Ratanakiri in 2012, including areas near Kanat Thom, without any notification or compensation for villagers there.

In 2014, Kanat Thom and 15 other communities (comprising more than 1,700 families), worked with the Highlander Association and several other civil society organizations to file numerous complaints against the company, all initially ignored. Persistent pressure through the media and behind-the-scenes research on the companies and financiers behind the project has paid off: The communities brought a complaint to the World Bank, which is partly funding the company’s rubber tree operation in Cambodia. The bank listened—and suspended HAGL’s operations. It is now overseeing negotiations between HAGL and the communities.

Chanthy has been in Kanat Thom for more than a day, helping its leaders prepare speeches and presentations. It’s a big day for the village. The HAGL case shows that “communities here are learning and growing,” Chanthy says, as indigenous people are more aware of their rights to communal land.

An elderly man bathes at the village well in Kanat Thom. Indigenous people in Cambodia are some of the most impoverished in the country. Though they consider their forest lands sacred, their government and foreign investors see only the money that can be made from those lands.

The night before negotiations with government officials and representatives of a Vietnamese company, members of the indigenous community of Kanat Thom, Cambodia, gather to prepare. These indigenous Kachok people are involved in a struggle to defend their communal lands from international investors intent on clearing their forest and agricultural fields to grow rubber trees.

 “I devote myself to this nation”

Dam Chanthy herself is an ardent defender of indigenous rights in Cambodia. Her commitment to her work has put her in danger: “In 2013 someone came to my farm and threatened to kill me. They fired shots into the ground,” she says her family told her. She was away at a community meeting, and was delayed getting home that evening because her motorcycle was out of fuel, and she had no money with which to purchase more.

“I was a one-liter bottle of fuel away from being murdered,” she says. “But I can’t be scared if I am to continue my work to defend the rights of indigenous people in this community.”

Cambodia, Chanthy says, is “in general peaceful, but there can be problems for those who are working to protect the rights of indigenous people.”

She is realistic about her security. “If I die it will be difficult for my family. I’m poor, my daughter is young…but if I die to save this community it is no problem for me. I devote myself to this nation.”

The power of social media

Just a few years ago it would have been unheard of for villagers, company officials, and local groups to meet at such an out-of-the-way location as Kanat Thom to discuss the rights of indigenous people. Confronted by bulldozers and giant company tractors, in the past villagers would have just left for another part of the forest. This is now no longer an option—there’s nowhere else to go.

That’s why indigenous communities need information about their rights and the skills to defend them. Ping Chamroeun knows the stakes are high for her indigenous community in the Taveng District of Ratanakiri. Chamroeun is a 26-year-old Prov person, and the mother of a little son. She answered the call when village elders from nearby communities came to her asking for help: A Chinese mining company was exploring for valuable minerals on communal land without permission. The elders had asked the workers to leave, but they refused.

“When I reached the village they showed me the site and I took photos of the mining company activity and posted it on Facebook,” Chamroeun says, showing us her smartphone and Facebook page. She later approached the workers, greeted them, and asked if they had permission from local authorities. “They said ‘no, it’s just an exploration’ and that if they find anything then they would consult with the community. But I told them they can’t explore here without permission. They said they would leave, and I think it was because they saw me document their work. I showed them the photos I took and I explained to them what I would do with the information…

“When they left the village they wanted to take samples, and I told them they were not allowed to remove any of the land.”

Cambodia's Ping Chamroeun was called upon to negotiate with a Chinese mining company exploring on communal land without permission. When she showed the mine workers her Facebook posts of their illegal activity, they left the area.

Chamroeun understands the dangers faced by those defending the land and environment in Cambodia. “I don’t worry,” Chamroeun says, “my actions are not illegal. I’m not afraid. I do what I do for the sake of my community and for the sake of the natural resources of indigenous communities.”

She is one of nine participants in a pilot training program by Oxfam’s partner Media One learning how to use social media like Facebook to document illegal logging and mining exploration, and other problems related to the environment in their communities. She says she needs more legal training, especially if others call on her to intercede with mining company representatives. And she believes that documenting illegal activities will be essential in the future.

“I want to get more reporting skills, so I can do stories and keep the mining companies out of the villages,” she says.

Written by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America