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Indigenous Rights to Address Economic Wrongs: The Indigenous Peoples Forum

By: Nathaniel Adams

December 7, 2010

by Nathaniel Adams (2010-11 WFDD Fellow) A silver-haired man slowly crouched and lit two candles, which stood amid a careful arrangement of ritual objects: a plate of uncooked rice, a clay urn, two wooden sticks and a bottle of rice wine. With the candles lit and some words said over them, another man dressed similarly in all black, but with a vibrantly patterned scarf tied around his waist, led a small chorus in chants while a drummer kept beat. A young man then danced to the front of the room moving in halting steps. He delicately cradled a large flute wrapped in peacock feathers.

What I was witnessing was a prayer that one doesnâ™t often see carried out here in Phnom Penh. It wasnâ™t a Buddhist puja, or a Muslim salat, or even a Christian sacrament. In fact, it wasnâ™t a rite of any of the major world religions, but rather one of the most minor. This was a hospitality prayer performed by members of one of Cambodiaâ™s smallest indigenous minorities, the Suy, who number some 1200 individuals. The prayer was performed to inaugurate the ninth annual Indigenous Peoples Forum, which ran from the 25th to the 26th of November 2010.

The IP Forum draws indigenous representatives from fifteen provinces across Cambodia to share experiences, voice concerns, and develop strategies to defend their rights in a country where they constitute a mere 1.5% of the population. The topic for this session is âœthe right to consultation and participation in the development process on indigenous peoples♠territories.❠At issue here is the appropriation of indigenous lands for large-scale commercial enterprises such as agro-industrial plantations, mining operations and tourism development, a process known as economic land concessions (ELC). Through ELCs the Cambodian government will lease land to foreign and domestic companies for tenure of up to 99 years. Such concessions have been particularly acute in indigenous highland areas, which are more sparsely populated and where the land is considered underutilized due to the long fallow regimes of traditional shifting-cultivation.

The Suy themselves are no strangers to ELCs. Their villages cluster around Mount O Ral Wildlife Sanctuary in Kampong Speu province. The sanctuary contains Suy agricultural land, a customary-use forest including resin trees, four spirit forests, and a sacred hot spring that is home to the Suy goddess Yeay Te. In 2004 the Royal Government of Cambodia granted a 900-hectare 75-year tourism concession on Mount O Ral to a Chinese company New Cosmos, despite the existence of a community-based eco-tourism venture already operating. The company was to develop a modern resort and golf course on the land, which included the Suyâ™s sacred hot springs. In reaction, the community organized protests, including night watches to protect the statue of Yeay Te located at the spring. Their sustained pressure led New Cosmos to suspend operations in 2005.

The Suyâ™s victory, however, was short lived. Four years later a broader concession of 10,000 hectares, the maximum allowed under current legislation, was offered over the same land in another 75-year lease to HLH, a Singaporean company, to develop an agro-industrial corn plantation. Amid protests, the Deputy Governor of O Ral district intervened to temporarily suspend the encroachment, which had already claimed twenty five hectares, affecting two villages. Negotiations are still ongoing, with the government persistent in its attempts to persuade Suy villagers to accept monetary compensation for their ancestral lands.

Throughout the IP Forum, representatives from the Indigenous Rights Active Members (IRAM) network shared similar experiences and voiced frustration with the government over what they see as a relentless wave of land grabbing. Few indigenous villages remain unaffected at some level by ELCs. According to the last major study on land concessions, undertaken in 2007 by UNHCR, 943,000 hectares of land were leased through fifty seven ELCs, representing 14.5% of all arable land in the country. As staggering as they are, these figures do not include concessions under 1000 hectares or those granted by provincial authorities. The stories shared at the forum were eerily similar. Speakers lamented the absence of local consultation on land concessions, with many communities only learning of them as they watched bulldozers roll in to clear the land. Some claimed that when community leaders attempted to speak with the management of these companies they were met instead with police and soldiers. There were stories of the arrest of community elders; stories of villagers tricked into providing thumbprints to acknowledge the receipt of âœgifts❠from local authorities, only to learn later the documents had in fact ceded large tracks of land. Some assertions from the audience seemed to border on paranoia, such as claims that Khmer villagers logging illegally on indigenous land were actually under the employ of the government. As far-fetched as this may sound, it demonstrates the atmosphere of worry and unease that now permeates the lives of indigenous communities. Many participants spoke of severe anxiety about the future, fear of the soldiers and police, and a general feeling of helplessness when their protests achieve nothing.

Land rights in Cambodia are currently in a state of flux as the country slowly moves forward from the collective land system instituted during the Khmer Rouge regime to one based on private property rights. In 2001, Cambodia promulgated a new land law giving individuals who retain possession of uncontested land for five years the ability to apply for legal title. The law was considered progressive at the time, in that it also recognized indigenous communities♠right to common property managed through customary law. However, before such common land rights can be recognized, indigenous communities would have to register as legal entities with the government, and this has proved a long and arduous process. Indeed, between the years of 2001 and 2009 only three communities successfully registered themselves. Though, as Dr. Yim Chhung, Deputy Chairperson Ministry of Rural Development proudly proclaimed at the IP Forum, fifty-four communities are now registered as legal entities. While this is a step in the right direction, registration is only the first of three steps in the process of applying for communal land title. The next, delineating community land boundaries, has brought neighboring villages into unprecedented conflict where once land was shared without concern. And as the land titling process creeps forward, it is greatly outpaced by land concession agreements, a situation, which leaves many communities with no legal recourse to defend their lands.

Indigenous communities in Cambodia have a unique connection to the natural landscape in which they live, adding another dire dimension to ongoing land alienation. Not only are these communities exceptionally reliant on forested areas for their livelihoods (particularly through collection of non-timber forest products and traditional agricultural methods such as shifting-cultivation), but these forests are also deeply interwoven into indigenous cultures and spiritual systems. Much of the land affected by concessions is composed of âœspirit forests❠and âœburial forests,❠where the souls of the ancestors and guardian spirits roam according to traditional mythologies. Out of respect for these spirits, communities often have complex sets of customary laws regulating access and activities within these areas. These cultural attributes constitute a symbolic spiritual geography of indigenous lands that is not well-documented or understood by outside groups. While the 2009 Sub-decree of Procedures of Registration of Land of Indigenous Communities has recognized the right of indigenous communities to register seven hectares of spirit forest and seven hectares of burial forest, limited ethnographic accounts on the subject suggest that not only are these allowances a substantial underestimation in terms of size but an oversimplification of the categorization of spiritually significant forests. Whatever legal wrangling ensues, it is clear that the spiritual significance of ancestral land can and should play a vital role in asserting and substantiating indigenous land claims. Likewise, the retention of this land will also prove vital to efforts to strengthen community solidarity and promote cultural preservation. Now, it is important for those of us committed to better understanding the role of religion in development to explore what part indigenous beliefs can play, not only in defending land rights, but in ensuring equitable, sustainable and culturally appropriate development strategies for indigenous communities in Cambodia.