Campaigns, criminalisation and concessions: indigenous land rights in Cambodia

In Cambodia, the violation of the land rights of indigenous peoples who have lived for thousands of years in their ancestral forests continues unabated. The problem remains pervasive while the government fails to implement relevant laws and policies to strengthen respect for indigenous rights, culture, identity and aspiration. This sparks grave concern amongst researchers in development and human rights.

Indigenous peoples, who call themselves Chuncheat, constitute 2-3% of the entire national population, or around 400,000 people. The majority live in the sparsely populated areas of the North and Northeastern Cambodia such as Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri, Kratie, Stung Treng Kampong Thom, and Preah Vihear provinces. They have traditionally managed almost 4 million hectares of remote evergreen and dry deciduous forests. Their livelihood is basically dependent on their systems of managing natural resources for agricultural production, such as slash and burn cultivation. They have their own religious practice which is strongly linked to forest resources.

Like the majority of Cambodians, indigenous people suffered in the civil war that followed the 1970 military coup, including the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal regime (1975-1979), which completely abolished private land ownership. During the civil war, Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri, Kratie, and Stung Treng provinces became the base for the revolutionary coalition of the Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge. This revolution opposed the Lon Nol regime that is believed to have received support from the US government to overthrow Prince Norodom Sihanouk. They also suffered from massive US air force bombing along the Ho Chi Minh Trail during war in neighbouring Vietnam.

After decades of protracted civil war and foreign intervention, Cambodia held the 1993 UNTAC supervised national elections that laid foundations for a peaceful and stable future. The country began reconnect to international communities, while at the same time the interest of local and international investors in the natural resources-rich highlands, for timber extraction and agro-industrial plantation, increased. The use of the land and natural resources of indigenous peoples changed dramatically.

In the 2000s, the government to some extent reluctantly recognised the rights of indigenous peoples. In 2001, the Department of Ethnic Minorities Development under the Ministry of Rural Development and Land Law was established, followed by the 2002 Land Management and Administration Project, a 2005 sub-decree on Economic Land Concessions, the 2007 ratification of UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a 2008 Protected Area Law, the 2009 National Policy on the Development of Indigenous Peoples and 2009 Sub-decree No 83 on procedures of registration of land of indigenous communities.

Economic land concessions (ELCs)

Indigenous people in Cambodia have lived on their ancestral land for thousand years. However, severe land conflict and land loss emerged because most of their ancestral lands were granted to private industrial agriculture companies by the government. According to the 2001 Land Law, the government  has the rights to lease up to 10,000 hectares of state land to private companies for up to 99 years for industrial agriculture investment, in order to generate economic growth in rural communities. According to Licadho, the government has since granted these economic land concessions (ELCs) to 297 local and international companies involving more than 2,1 million hectares for large scale industrial agriculture while most parts of these granted lands are home to indigenous people whose human rights are deeply engrained in lands.

The companies that attained ELCs have used granted lands for hydropower construction, exploitative mining, and illegal logging which contributes to massive deforestation in Cambodia.  Those development activities caused adverse impact such as loss of forest land, spirit forest, burial forest and reserved forest, displacement, environmental pollution, violence and intimidation, and decreased household income. Since 2000, an estimated 770,000 people, or six percent of the total population, has been forcibly displaced in land disputes.

The failure or inability to implement the ELC policy efficiently remains common. The main factor is bureaucratic weakness and a politicised and personalised bureaucracy closely related to the ruling elite, who manipulatively gain self-enrichment and politically maintain their powers at the expense of indigenous people and rural communities in the name of development.

In May 2012, the government suspended the ELCs in the midst of growing criticism and an inter-ministerial committee was formed to review existing concessions. Consequently, more than 100 concessions have been revoked from concessionaires that did not abide by the law or the ELC lease.

China remains Cambodia’s top donor and strategic development partner. In 2021, Chinese foreign direct investment in Cambodia increased significantly in spite of the impact of Covid-19. The total investment reached up to USD 2,326 million, a 67% increase on 2020. Since the late 2000s, some Chinese investment projects have been directed towards large scale projects on agriculture and natural resources, especially hydropower plants and land concessions incentivised by the Cambodian government’s attractive investment – ELCs. According to Licadho, of granted 297 concessions—equivalent to 2.1 million hectares, about thirty Chinese companies control the largest total area that cover nearly 400,000 hectares. Most Chinese companies have maintained Cambodia’s entrenched socio-political system of patron-client networks. They have strong political connections with local political elites. They caused land conflict, displacement, and environmental harm which grossly violated the rights of indigenous peoples.

Over time, the political landscape in Cambodia has changed dramatically. However, the entrenched traditional patronage system remains influential on contemporary patron-client relationships which dictate land management in Cambodia. It allows the ruling party the power to monopolise national and local government bureaucracies. In order to secure its grip on political power and retain loyalty, the ruling party has allocated position, resources and favourable business licenses to a limited group of closely linked ruling elites in politic, military and business sectors, who are its key supporters. This causes hierarchical corruption that hinders the efficient and effective execution of land policy reform.

The government has granted economic land concessions to at least 15 companies owned by prominent businessmen and the politically powerful. Many of these companies, though not all, became the concessionaires because they had strong ties and joint ventures with local influential politico-commercial elites, high ranking officials and political figures. Of notorious companies, Try Pheap, TTY, and Chinese Guangdong Hengfu Group are some examples.

Communal land registration

Since 2009, indigenous communities’ access to legal communal land title has been formally recognised by 2009 Sub-decree No 83. The communal land registration process involves three main stages. First, formal recognition of self-identification as a traditional culture from the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) is required. Second, an application for recognition as a legal entity from the Ministry of Interior (MoI) must be made. The third and final application is to the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction for collective land title.

In practice, the collective land registration process is complicated, lengthy and expensive, and excludes many indigenous communities. From 2011 to 2021, only 33 communal land titles have been granted to 33 indigenous communities of a total of 458 indigenous communities. Those titles cover 33,899 hectares where 3,235 indigenous families live. As of 2021, only 154 indigenous communities have received recognitions from MoRD and MoI. For some, it is extremely hard to attain collective land title since parts of their forests have already been granted to private companies through ELCs. Negotiations between the MoRD, MoI and the companies prior to the commencement of collective land registration process are required.

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In 2018, almost 20 people representing more than 200 Chong indigenous families submitted petitions to MoRD, the Prime Minister’s cabinet and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to request intervention to help them gain official recognition in Koh Kong province’s Areng Valley, after their petition was denied by local authorities. MoRD’s chief of the administrative department received the petition and promised to bring it to his superior. Many Chong activists have been arrested for their campaign against hydro-power dam in the area. As of May 2022, approximately 300 hectares of indigenous Chong land in Koh Kong province has been demarcated and the Ministry of Environment plans to hand land back to Chong indigenous people.

In 2021, the government reviewed the application process for indigenous collective land title, and Indigenous land use in general.

Criminalising human rights and environmental defenders

Non-indigenous and indigenous peoples alike have suffered from the disastrous impact on socio-cultural aspects of their lives caused by domestic and foreigner companies that received ELCs. However, indigenous communities are particularly vulnerable since their social, cultural and economic ties are deeply ingrained in forest land.

An indigenous rights movement began in the late 1990s when the government has attracted a number of domestic and foreign companies to engage in large-scale land investment in agro-industry. However, with deterioration of freedom of expression and human rights violations perpetuated by recently introduced punitive regulations, such as the 2018 revision of the Penal Code on lese majeste and Proclamation No. 170 on publication controls of website and social media processing via internet in the Kingdom of Cambodia, indigenous activism against those companies remains under severe pressure and has become more perilous.

Since 2017, the government has beefed up its effort to crackdown down on indigenous environmental activists who peacefully advocate to protect the environment and natural resources of indigenous communities. On 26th April, 2012, indigenous environmental activist Chut Wuthy was shot dead by military police while repeatedly investigating illegal logging and land seizures with two journalists in the protected forests in Koh Kong province near the Thai border. He was one of Cambodia’s most dedicated, prominent land and environmental activist, but a spokesman for the government’s Council of Ministers called him a great log trader.

In October 2015, a Chong activist named Ven Vorn, who had played key role in campaign against the Areng hydro power dam, was arrested and imprisoned for 5 months on charges of illegally harvesting forest products. In 2021, five environmental activists from Mother Nature Cambodia were sentenced to between 18 and 20 months in prison and a fine of 4 million Riels on charges of   and insulting the king.

Indigenous peoples in Cambodia continuously face land evictions. An estimated 600,000 people have been forcibly evicted from their homes. Campaigns against illegal land grabbing are dangerous. In 2012, security forces opened fire on 1000 families in the Kratie province. A 14 year-old girl was killed. The families were forcibly evicted to make space for agribusiness Casotim. No free, prior, informed consent was obtained from the people before removing them from their lands, and no fair compensation was offered. The proposed Stung Cheay Areng Dam project in the Areng Valley, home to the indigenous Chong people, was another prominent, similar case. In another case, the 2017 Lower Sesan II (LSS2) hydro dam project in Steung Treng province has had a catastrophic impact on the cultural rights of the Bunong ndigenous communities.

The violation of land rights of marginalised indigenous people in Cambodia has been glaring and rampant. Opaque ELC policy, lengthy, expensive communal land titling processes and the dominance of well-established patronage-client relationships continue to exclude them. Their right to free, prior and informed consent is completely ignored. There are no sufficient ways for them to meaningfully engage in the design and implementation of development projects. Consequently, far-reaching environmental, economic, and sociocultural impacts put their lives and livelihoods at greater risk and their future prospects remain gloomy if their land rights are not promoted and protected properly.

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