TA HEUY, Cambodia — Cambodian farmers Nuoy and Nangkek were both in their late 20s when they took out their first microloan in 2018 for around $600 to help grow their crops. Today, the couple owe more than $10,000 to two financial institutions charging 18% annual interest.
M’lou Prey II commune authorities, of Preah Vihear’s Chheb district, submitted documentation Tuesday to the district regarding alleged encroachment on land farmed by Indigenous Kuy people following a protest earlier this month.
On January 7, nearly 100 Kuy people from Bos and Preus Ka’ak villages gathered to prevent outsiders with tractors from clearing farmland. The dispute marks the second incident in less than a month of Kuy people from Chheb district fighting back against outsiders clearing community farmland.
An international organization accrediting global forest conservation projects has opened an investigation into the Southern Cardamom REDD+ project run by the NGO Wildlife Alliance and the Environment Ministry.
The government has permitted private firm Focus Trans Global Venture Co Ltd (FTGV) to study the construction of a new airport in Mondulkiri province, northeast of Cambodia, as well as invest in a build, operate and transfer (BOT) model, the Office of the Council Minister said on January 9.
Many of the Indigenous communities in Cambodia are primarily concentrated in the northeastern region of the country, areas which were previously covered by dense forest.
These Indigenous peoples identify as descendants of forest caretakers and have lived on their ancestral lands for thousands of years. Throughout this time, Indigenous communities have maintained strong ties with the forests in which they live through vibrant spiritual and cultural practices.
These Indigenous peoples have traditionally managed almost 4 million hectares of land and still rely heavily on traditional methods for hunting forest animals, harvesting non-timber forest products, including collecting honey and resin, and conventional rotational slash-and-burn rice farming methods.
Indigenous communities engage in a non-capitalist and non-competitive economy. Indigenous food production and livelihood maintenance methods have gone hand in hand with protecting the forests, mountains, lakes, and rivers that these communities honour as spirit gods and sacred places.
When it comes to the future of Cambodia’s forest management strategies, we should look to Indigenous-led, community-based methods, not just because these methods are suitable for the well-being of these communities, but also because these methods have proven time and time again to be better for the health of our forests.
Nevertheless, at the same time, under these legal frameworks, much of Cambodia’s forested areas have been carved up by economic land concessions (ELCs) granted by the government to foreign and domestically-owned private companies in various sectors. Under the 2001 land law, these companies could lease up to 10,000 hectares for up to 99 years. Human rights monitor Licadho states that at least 297 local and international agri-business companies have been granted ELCs covering more than 2.1 million hectares of land.
The companies that have obtained ELCs have used the land for a variety of purposes: for agriculture, for hydropower construction, for mining operations and more. Many of these projects have been carried out in traditional Indigenous territories and natural resource hubs, including sites considered culturally significant and sacred by these communities.
Research found that these ELCs have had an outsized impact on deforestation. Although ELCs contained roughly 16 percent of Cambodia’s forest cover as of 2016, forest loss within ELC boundaries accounted for nearly 30 percent of the country’s total forest loss.
The loss of this land has had negative consequences for these Indigenous communities, threatening Indigenous sources of income, causing landlessness and, perhaps most significantly, leading to the loss of religious practices.
In 2012, Prime Minister Hun Sen issued an immediate and indefinite moratorium on new land concessions and promised a full review of existing ELCs.
Despite this moratorium, new ELCs have been granted as of 2022, one to a local tycoon’s company for 4,000 hectares and another that appears to comprise more than 9,000 hectares to Korean company Horizon Agriculture Development Co. in Steung Treng province. While it is still being determined what company oversees this land, satellite imagery shows that large chunks of forest in this ELC have been cleared since the land was signed over.
Forest and rights advocates have long argued that these ELCs are not just damaging in terms of their impact on the livelihoods and ways of life for local communities and in terms of the conflict they create but that they do not deliver on their economic development promises, not generating nearly enough financial benefit to offset the environmental and social costs they generate.
There is a better way.
It is still possible to restore the rights of Indigenous communities while saving this land’s biodiversity, ecosystems, and forests. The best path forward is to expedite communal land registration for Indigenous peoples and to enforce these rights on the ground. These significant steps will also pave the way for the Kingdom to move closer towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions, limiting global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius as stated in the Paris Climate Accords (2015) and enabling Cambodia to reach the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
Communal land tenure works
Communal land recognition is of the utmost importance for the health and well-being of Indigenous peoples. This system forms a significant part of what enables these communities to keep their cultures alive.
Nevertheless, it is also crucial to note that Indigenous land management systems have the potential to be transformational when it comes to protecting this country’s forests. Research around the globe has found that this type of forest management—decentralized and in the hands of local communities—has been incredibly successful at enabling forests to thrive.
There are various reasons why this type of forest management is particularly effective. Indigenous cultural and ecological knowledge is central to these reasons, rooted and intertwined with Indigenous religious practices. This knowledge translates to better outcomes for forests.
“Indigenous and tribal peoples’ traditional knowledge about fauna and flora and their uses, pests and diseases, fire, climate, and soils, and how these elements respond to human practices, contribute greatly to forest management, use, restoration, and monitoring, and adaptation to new situations,” FAO explains.
Alternatively, even more simply, “People who spend more time in the forest and know how to get greater benefits from them take care of them better.”
Community management of forests elsewhere has also proved successful. Recently releasedresearch in Nepal, made possible by remote sensing technology from NASA [U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration], found that a 1993 legislation that handed over management and user rights of forests to community forest groups has since led to a near-doubling of forest cover in the country, from 26 percent to 45 percent.
“Once communities started actively managing the forests, they grew back mainly due to natural regeneration,” said Jefferson Fox, the principal investigator of the NASA Land Cover Land Use Change project.
As of 2021, 34 percent of Nepal’s forests were managed by more than 22,000 community-forest user groups. Under the rules set out by Nepal’s legislation, local forest rangers work with community groups to develop plans to manage the forests. Local communities have created projects that allowed the extraction of resources from the forests, like fruits and traditional medicines, and allowed the sale of non-timber forest products. Community members were also empowered to protect forests through local forest patrols.
At the same time, Nepal has shown that natural forest protection can be parlayed into significant economic outcomes, partly through financing initiatives tied to the health of the country’s forests. One project linked to sustainable forestry in Nepal has the potential for up to $45 million in support and another $24 million.
Strengthen Law Enforcement on the Ground
In Cambodia, Indigenous community members have long been participating in and advocating for greater control over forests to carry out their vision of sustainable forest management. However, so far, Indigenous-led forest protection initiatives have often had to take place in an unofficial capacity.
Ruos Lim, a Kuy Indigenous leader from Chom Penh forest, part of the 242,500-hectare Beng Per Wildlife Sanctuary, told Mongabay, “Day and night, we will lead our children and grandchildren to protect our livelihoods from all intruders,” adding later in the conversation, that “[i]n reality, we are the only active patrollers here.”
While Indigenous communities technically have access to legal, communal land titles through the 2009 Sub-decree No. 83 on registration procedures of indigenous communities, in reality, it is not that simple. The road to the collective land registration process can be complex, lengthy and expensive. From 2011 to 2021, only 33 communal land titles have been granted to 33 indigenous communities of a total of 458 Indigenous communities.
It is also important to note that the Indigenous communities are not the only groups impacted by land and forest loss. Aid groups estimate that more than 770,000 people have been involved in land conflicts between 2000 and 2014 alone. This estimate may not even include communities struggling with long-standing land disputes, such as those in Mondulkiri, Ratanakiri and Preah Vihear provinces.
Cambodian laws and the court system have provided few opportunities for relief, causing Indigenous communities to lose hope in judiciary-based and state-based solutions. “We cannot depend on the law; it is too slow,” says Kuy Indigenous leader Ruos Lim.
To guide Cambodia on a more sustainable track, the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning, and Construction should expedite collective land registration for Indigenous communities and act in accordance with Prime Minister Hun’s recommendations made in December 2022 during the Ministry of Land Management’s annual meeting regarding a complete land registration system.
Second, the Ministry of Environment should expand the protected areas in Indigenous territories and allocate more funding to support the protection of these forests. The Royal Government of Cambodia should incorporate culture, ecological knowledge and spiritual belief into law, policies and decentralized forest control with communal land managed by indigenous communities.
Finally, legal systems must strictly adhere to court procedures and ensure that the Land Law and ELCs Sub-degree are used to deliver justice and compensation for Indigenous communities. By doing so, Cambodia’s forests will flourish, Cambodia will be less vulnerable to climate change, and Indigenous peoples will have access to prosperity, happiness, and forest stability for generations to come.
Rithy Bun is a research fellow at Future Forum and has many years of experiences working with indigenous communities
Companies chaired by a prominent Cambodian tycoon are quietly starting the approval process for two dormant hydropower dam projects in Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province, according to documents reviewed by VOA, alarming environmentalists who say the projects could disrupt Indigenous people’s livelihoods and the Mekong River ecosystem.
Lower Srepok 3 and Lower Sesan 3 are named for the major Mekong tributaries where they would be built and have been part of Cambodia’s dam pipeline since 2003, when the government began planning hydropower investments. Several Chinese companies pursued approvals for the dams around a decade ago, but the projects did not move forward.
Several of the extreme climate events throughout the world in the past year have spurred a sense of urgency among Indigenous communities who are the first to be affected.
Carbon markets, a popular mechanism used by global businesses and countries to offset their emissions, have been on the table during negotiations at the United Nations COP28 Climate Change Conference.
In a year that has seen carbon markets under growing scrutiny due to reports of alleged scams revealing that only a handful of emissions were offset instead of the massive amounts projected, Indigenous communities at the conference which ended this week were eager to be heard on how these could work.
Today, there are an estimated 470 million indigenous peoples who live across ninety countries in the world. It makes up less than five percent of the world’s population. There are more than 7,000 languages and five thousand diverse cultures among indigenous groups.
According to NRDSESIP Data, Cambodia is one nation that has almost twenty-two groups of indigenous peoples, equal to 1.34% of the Cambodian population, which covers sixteen provinces in this country.
The livelihood systems of Indigenous communities predominantly hinge upon the utilization of land, forests, and various other natural resources. The practice of shifting cultivation, also known as rotational farming, holds significant cultural and economic importance for the community. Unfortunately, this traditional livelihood system has been steadily declining due to various factors. Among these factors, the denial of their rights to access and utilize land, particularly their ancestral land, which serves as their primary resource, stands out as a significant contributor.
Why is land important to Indigenous peoples?
Indigenous lands refer to territories that have been historically inhabited or used by indigenous peoples, often characterized by their cultural, spiritual, and economic connections to the land. These lands hold immense significance as they are not just physical spaces but also repositories of ancestral knowledge, traditions, and sustainable practices that have been passed down through generations, fostering a deep sense of identity and belonging for indigenous communities.
Indigenous communities safeguard 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity, and forests on their land are better maintained. 36% of the world’s remaining intact forests are on indigenous Peoples’ lands, according to the World Bank’s article. (Fiji’s Emalu Tribal Chief, Lemeki Toutou., 2023.)
How do Indigenous peoples connect to their land?
The connection between indigenous communities and their land is deeply rooted in their cultural, social, and spiritual identity. “Land is most important to indigenous life because it is connected to land and forests, especially our collective land, which our ancestors remained on for us,” Community’s Committee Chair Choeut Chhorn says.
Land and Economic Development: Land provides them with diverse resources for their livelihood and needs. It is the traditional way that land brings them opportunities for hunting, fishing, and agriculture. According to the Asian Development Bank, most indigenous farmers in the northeast are based on agriculture production, wetland rice cultivation, pig and gathering food from the forest, hunting, and fishing. All of these are helping them do their farming so they can survive their lives.
Land links to culture: Land holds significant value for humans, especially indigenous peoples, for many reasons. Land has a deep impact on their cultural and spiritual identity in their community. Indigenous peoples recognize their land as the main resource of value in the environment. The land provides material resources like food and also supports the mind and spirit of the community.  Moreover, their beliefs, cultural systems, and ways of living are linked to their own land.
Land toward sustainable development: Land systems are the heart of many global sustainability challenges, from carbon emissions to biodiversity loss and wealth inequality. Indigenous peoples have a deep understanding of the land and ecosystems. They are practicing sustainable land management and conservation techniques that help protect biodiversity and mitigate climate change.
Additionally, land is meaningful to indigenous life due to the fact that land and forest are identities to protect their self-determination, cultures, and relationships between indigenous groups and land, which are complex and multifaceted. Land forest protection is really important to maintain biodiversity, mitigate climate change, and preserve human lives on the planet.
What are the challenges of land protection?
When indigenous peoples lose their lands or forests, they will face numerous challenges that impact their communities and ways of life. Losing land can mean losing lives, Laura Notess’s article posted in 2018.
Mrs. Pleuk Phearom expresses a valid concern about the potential consequences of losing land. For indigenous peoples, the loss of land is not just the loss of a physical space; it signifies the loss of their way of life, traditions, and collective heritage. Without land, indigenous communities face the risk of losing their identities and cultural practices that have been passed down through generations. The phrase “No Land, No Life” powerfully encapsulates the sentiment that the survival and well-being of indigenous peoples are intrinsically tied to the land they inhabit.
Therefore, if the indigenous peoples lose their land, it can have negative effects on their livelihoods, increase conflicts, loss of self-determination, loss of identity and custom, and almost loss of biodiversity and climate change to the world as well. Losing land is like losing everything to them, as well as their traditional knowledge and practice of their belief in forests and ancestors.
Development and Investment: Indigenous peoples in Cambodia have lived on their ancestral land for thousands of years. However, their land conflict and land loss emerged because most of their lands were granted to private industrial agriculture companies by the government. Based on 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 the majority of these granted lands are home to indigenous peoples whose human rights are deeply ingrained in lands.
The loss of the mountain is akin to losing their faith, beliefs, and indigenous identity. When indigenous communities lose their identity, it is a loss to the Cambodian national heritage. The next generation might not know what their identity is, Heng, a Community Representative of Bunong people said.
Collective Land Title Challenges: RGC’s Forest Law of 2002 and Land Law of 2001 recognize indigenous peoples’ traditional use of land, and the latter allows indigenous peoples to apply for community land titling (CLT). However, the process for obtaining these titles is burdensome and slow. This has left many Indigenous communities without certainty and security for many years. There are 458 Indigenous communities in Cambodia, but only 40 have received titles. Besides, the process still has complicated requirements for obtaining CLTs due to the limitations on the size of the land enshrined in law.
Amendment to Law related to Indigenous Peoples: Even though the Cambodian government has made a commitment to law and policy related to indigenous peoples, it has currently drafted an amendment that removes mention of Indigenous Peoples and changes it to “Local Communities,” an alteration that denies them their rights under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). More than this, the government failed to strategically involve Indigenous people in the amendment process.
How to ensure the protection of indigenous forests and land
The consideration of legal and policy measures is crucial to ensuring the protection of Indigenous forests and land.
It is imperative that the laws and policies in place incorporate provisions for the acknowledgment and integration of Indigenous traditional knowledge in the preservation and conservation of biodiversity within forested areas and land. Furthermore, it is crucial to acknowledge the significant economic advantages that can be obtained through the sustainable management of indigenous forests and land.
Ratification of international conventions and agreements is one of the effective protection measures to which the government should pay attention.
These agreements and conventions, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Convention on Biological Diversity, serve as important frameworks for recognizing the unique cultural and ecological contributions of Indigenous Peoples and ensuring their voices are heard in decision-making processes. By upholding these international commitments and working closely with Indigenous communities, we can work towards a more inclusive and sustainable approach to environmental governance that respects and preserves the rights and knowledge of Indigenous Peoples.
The need for strong legislation and enforcement is crucial in order to effectively protect the rights and knowledge of Indigenous Peoples. Without robust legal frameworks, there is a risk of their rights being overlooked or violated, and their valuable contributions to cultural heritage and environmental stewardship being undermined. Additionally, enforcement mechanisms are necessary to hold accountable those who disregard the rights and knowledge of Indigenous Peoples, ensuring that their voices are not only heard but also respected and acted upon in decision-making processes in adherence to the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) principle in all processes of development and other matters relating to them.
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 MOI/MRD. (2021) “National Report on Demographic and Socio-Economic Status of Ips in Cambodia.” Retrieved from: CIPO
Joint Statement of Indigenous Community Representatives
Of the Kingdom of Cambodia
Concerns Relating to the Environment and Natural Resources Code
Angkor Century Resort and Spa, Siem Reap
December 19, 2023
On December 19, 2023, at the Angkor Century Resort in Siem Reap, we, 189 representatives of Indigenous communities, including 44 women, convened at the National Consensus Consultative Workshop between Indigenous Peoples and Other Stakeholders to gather relevant input on concerns about the content of the articles that affect the social, cultural, and economic rights of Indigenous peoples who live in and near protected areas and forest areas, as provided in the Environment and Natural Resources Code.
The consultation was attended by representatives of the communal land titling communities, community protected areas, and community forests from 12 provinces: Kratie, Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri, Stung Treng, Preah Vihear, Kampong Thom, Kampong Speu, Pursat, Koh Kong, Banteay Meanchey, Sihanoukville and Battambang.
Affirming that Indigenous peoples are equal to all other peoples while recognizing the right of all peoples to be different, to consider themselves different, and to be respected as such,
Affirming also that all peoples contribute to the diversity and richness of civilizations and cultures, which constitute the common heritage of humankind,
Affirming further that rights to natural resources and practices based on or advocating superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic, or cultural differences are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable, and socially unjust,
Reaffirming that Indigenous peoples, in the exercise of their rights, should be free from discrimination of any kind,
Concerned that indigenous peoples have suffered from historic injustices as a result of the formulation or creation of the Environment and Natural Resources Code, other laws and regulations which dispossess their lands, traditional sites, culture, belief, non-timber forest product areas, and resources around their communities, thus weakening or preventing them from exercising, in particular, their right to development, conservation of cultural and civilization legacy, and interests in the natural resource sector in accordance with their own needs,
Concerned further that Indigenous peoples face social injustice because this Code provides a single standard or is solely based on social equality with the general population, or treats Indigenous communities on an equal footing with the general community by defining Indigenous peoples as local communities. In this spirit, the Code should not imply that including Indigenous communities in the definition of local communities provides reasons for inclusion, does not leave Indigenous communities behind, or promotes Indigenous communities to be equal in an equal society; on the contrary, such inclusion here embodies discrimination and does not benefit indigenous communities. Only then will it become a major cause of Indigenous communities being increasingly vulnerable to the loss of natural resource rights, economic, social, cultural, civilizational, and identity differences, and other benefits,
Concerned that indigenous peoples will lose their differences due to the fact that the Code does not state or include the word “Indigenous Peoples or Indigenous Communities” while some national laws already exist, such as the Land Law of 2001 from Article 23 to Article 28, Article 306 of the Civil Code of 2007, the Forestry Law of 2002, Sub-Decree No. 83 on Procedure of Registration of Land of Indigenous Communities and National Policies on Indigenous Peoples Development, as well as international laws and instruments that the Kingdom of Cambodia has supported and ratified, such as Convention No. 111 on Discrimination of Employment and Occupation.Convention No. 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in the Independent StatesUnited Nations Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions,International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and, in particular, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Instead, the Code defines the term “Local community” by generalizing indigenous community, which we see as an effort to eliminate indigenous or ethnic names by mixing with the general community, which is distinct from the indigenous people. Meanwhile, indigenous peoples and most Khmers have a shared value: the value of ownership of Cambodia’s motherland throughout Cambodia’s whole national history.
Reaffirming that Indigenous peoples do not oppose the inclusion of the term “local community” in the Environment and Natural Resources Code, but the term “local community” cannot replace the term “Indigenous Communities” or be included in the definition of “Local Communities,” because Indigenous peoples differ in origin, ethnicity, language, identity, history, society, civilization, culture, tradition, and permanence, especially the connection of values, virtues, and harmony in the practice of traditional livelihoods with sustainable economy linking directly with their land, forest, natural resources and other resources.
Concerned that Article 364 stipulates that the designation of the four management zones does not stipulate the Indigenous principles of “Free, Prior, and Informed Consent” which may have an impact on Indigenous peoples’ social, cultural, and economic rights. The challenges and threats are as follows:
Restrictions, deprivation of ownership, and prohibitions on freedom of entry and exit, traditional farming practices, housing, farmland, and places of worship, as well as loss of forests, burial sites, religious sites, natural history sites, archeological sites, and cultural heritage sites, and areas for the practice and extraction of traditional non-timber forest products. As long as Indigenous Peoples continue to assert customary ownership in their current areas, they will suffer legal fines, transitional fines, litigation or authoritative forces, imprisonment, convictions, coercion, and intimidation. As a result of these problems and threats, individuals and families in indigenous communities will face psychological and emotional crises, trauma, ruined reputation, loss of happiness, loss of livelihood, debt, migration, wasting time, and children dropping out of school.
Concerned that indigenous peoples may lose access to the aforementioned locations, zones, and resources because the Sustainable Use Zone provision specifies that “the zone has economic value for national economic development.” If the Royal Government intends to change the purpose from conservation to national economic development by granting economic land concessions to the company, the company will enter to completely clear the forest, land, natural resources, and other resources.
Concerned that land within the community area provided for in Article 364 will not be able to make a decision or approve the issuance of a title in the area when the Ministry of Environment is unwilling to require indigenous peoples to obtain a certificate of collective ownership, despite indigenous peoples’ control, possession, and use of the land being in line with or in accordance with Articles 23 and 25 of the 2001 Land Law and international instruments. This issue is caused by the content of Article 364’s second paragraph in the community area, which states that “the issuance of a certificate identifying the owner of immovable property or permission to use land in this area… ” requires “prior approval from the Ministry in charge of Environment and Natural Resources in accordance with the laws and regulations in force.”
Concerned further that Article 369, indigenous peoples face the loss of the right to use natural resources in the traditional, religious, and customary way, which limits the right to use only in the sustainable use zone, and some other types of resources may occur in conservation zones by following the guidelines set by the Prakas of the Ministry in charge of environment and natural resources, and these guidelines will not be expected to have the same content giving rights and benefits to indigenous peoples based on actual situation. Additionally, freedom of movement within and out of protected areas must also be supervised by officials in charge of the environment and natural resources.
Insist on the inclusion or provision of the words “Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous Communities” in the Environment and Natural Resources Code, as well as other regulations established to implement the Code. The State shall not generalize Indigenous peoples which are defined or provided for as Local communities.
Insist on the inclusion or provision of the “Free, Prior, and Informed Consent” principle in all stages of drafting or revising this Code or other laws and regulations, as well as other procedures, in accordance with collective mechanisms of indigenous peoples.
Request that the phrase “The issuance of a certificate of identification of an immovable property owner or a land use permit in this area requires prior approval from the Ministry in charge of Environment and Natural Resources” be repealed, which is provided for in the second paragraph of the Community Areas Section of Article 364 of the Environment and Natural Resources Code to expedite and resolve the deadlock in the registration of indigenous communities’ land and the registration of cultural heritage of indigenous communities based on the actual situation. And insist that this code is not an obstacle to the process of indigenous community land registration based on the request and actual situation of each community.
Request that the state enact a provision in the law and issue a certificate on the location or traditional sites, identity, cultural heritage, archeological sites, religious beliefs, rotational agricultural regions, and NTFP areas.