Make IPs voices heard everywhere
Kui man with Troa music instrument (Photo by CIPA)

Discover How Land Defends the Lifeline of Indigenous Communities

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.[1]

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.[2] 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. [3] Moreover, their beliefs, cultural systems, and ways of living are linked to their own land.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6]

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.[7]

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.[8] Besides, the process still has complicated requirements for obtaining CLTs due to the limitations on the size of the land enshrined in law.[9]

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.

IPs representatives statement
Indigenous representatives from different provinces read the statement on their concerns regarding IPs-related laws at the National Consultative Workshop in Siem Reap (Photo by CIPA)

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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[1] MOI/MRD. (2021) “National Report on Demographic and Socio-Economic Status of Ips in Cambodia.” Retrieved from: CIPO

[2] Hean Sokhom, Tiann Monie. (June 2002) “Indigenous Peoples/Ethnic Minorities and Poverty Reduction.” Retrieved from:

[3] Jesse Pirini, Stephen Cummings, Abby Litchfield, Maya Fischhoff. (August 11, 2023) “Indigenous Economic Development Sustainable Economic Development.” Retrieved from:

[4] Hean Sokhom, Tiann Monie. (June 2002) “Indigenous Peoples/Ethnic Minorities and Poverty Reduction, focus on Cambodia’s Indigenous Community .”

[5] Laura Notess. (May 31, 2018) “Forest. For Indigenous Peoples, Losing Land Can Mean Losing Lives.” Retrieved: World Resources Institute

[6] Bunly Soeng. (11 Aug 2022, New Mandala) “Campaigns, criminalisation and concessions: Indigenous land rights in Cambodia, focus on Economic land concessions (ELCs).” Website:

[7] Try Thaney, Eung Sea. (CaboJA news, 7 December 2023) “Return Our Sacred Mountain’s Punong Natives Continue Four Year Fight For Land Sold Illegally.” Retrieved from: ‘Return Our Sacred Mountain’ – Punong Natives in Mondulkiri Continue Four-Year Fight For Land Sold Illegally | CamboJA News

[8] Emiel de Lange, Sushil Raj, Yun Mane. ( Mongabay, 1 December 2023) “Indigenous land rights are key to conservation in Cambodia.” Commentary

[9] iwgia. (written on 29 March 2023) “THe Indigenous World 2023: Cambodia.” Website: Collective land titles

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