No to the new road
Land grabbing is a major problem in Cambodia, for example in the rural province of Ratanakiri. Trained by CEA partners, indigenous communities here started to register their land borders, collect evidence of land grabbing and file official complaints. ‘It has made them more confident.’
Written by Ate Hoekstra.
A rooster crows loud and proud in the centre of the village. A small pig trudges slowly through the streets of dark red soil. Children pass by on their bicycles, laughing while they struggle to keep their balance. We are in Ta Ngach, in north-eastern Cambodia.
Sitting in the shadow of his wooden house, Cha Ai Trahen has just returned from a visit to the forest where he collected leaves for traditional medicines. Like most of his neighbours, Trahen has lived in Ta Ngach since he was born. The 57-year-old, a retired doctor who is part of the Kreung ethnic minority, wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. ‘But I’m worried about our forest. I’m afraid we will lose more land,’ he says.
Trahen’s concerns are directly related to one of Cambodia’s biggest social problems: land conflicts. Over the past two to three decades, land conflicts have arisen everywhere in this country. In most cases, it’s the poor who lose their land to the rich and powerful, who in return often promise compensation that is rarely adequate. Intimidation and threats are common in land conflicts, and sometimes they result in violence.
Ratanakiri lies in north-eastern Cambodia. Bordering Laos and Vietnam, it’s one of Cambodia’s most rural and mountainous provinces. The highland villages of Ratanakiri are home to several ethnic minority groups, such as the Kreung, Jarai and Tampuan. Many people in Ratanakiri depend on agriculture. Because boundaries are unclear and the area is rich with natural resources, land conflicts occur regularly.
‘They promised us a new road, a bridge and a school, but we don’t want that’
In Ratanakiri, land grabs aren’t unusual either. In the villages Ta Ngach, Krey, Koy, Kancheung and Mas, the biggest threat is a group of powerful business people who are looking to take 400 hectares of land, which they reportedly want to build plantation on. ‘They promised that in return they will build a new road, a bridge and a school, but it’s impacting our community land and forest, so we don’t want it,’ Trahen says.
Moving quickly, the former doctor gets up from his seat, walks into his home and returns with a handful of documents. Among them is an official complaint that several villagers in Ta Ngach and in the neighbouring village Mas signed to raise their concerns about the speculator’s plan. ‘Over the years we sent several complaints to the authorities, the last time in October of this year. But sometimes the government doesn’t even respond to our concerns.’
Several CEA partners (see box) help the villagers to strengthen their position. During the different training activities offered by these NGOs, which so far have drawn over 500 participants, villagers learned how to register their land borders with GPS, for example, collect evidence of land grabbing and file an official complaint.
‘It’s thanks to these training activities that we know about the forest law, and that we learned how to solve a conflict without getting a court involved,’ says farmer Tang Hem. He lives in Kreh, another rural village in Ratanakiri, where it sometimes feels as if modern times haven’t arrived yet. There is limited electricity, no cars, and almost the entire village depends on rice and cashew nut farming.
Hem says that thanks to the NGO training it has gotten easier to mobilise the community to ensure that all villagers are on the same side and have the same information. Others say they now actively use GPS to know exactly where the borders of their land are, and to pin a location when they see illegal activities in the forest.
Kang Munny (30)
‘Three days a week, I work as a volunteer to protect my community’s forest. As a clerk I’m making notes when there’s an important meeting and I document all the patrolling activities. A few times a month, I join the forest patrols myself. This can be very dangerous, because offenders sometimes have handmade guns. That’s why my wife is often worried that something will happen to me. I admit that occasionally I’m afraid during a patrol, but I love the forest and I want to protect it. For me, this is an important way to help my community.’
‘I’m afraid we will lose more land’
Saing Ory (42)
‘As a Kreung minority, I have lived in the same village for my entire life. My family depends on farming and on natural resources from the forest, like mushrooms and wild bananas. I have just followed a two-day training course where I learned more about patrolling the forest, how to use GPS and how to read a map. This is very important for us, because there are a lot of illegal activities in the forest and if we know how to use a map and how to pin a location with GPS it’s easier to document a forest crime like illegal logging.’
Although none of them are wealthy, the villagers are hesitant about the economic development powerful speculators promise them. They fear losing their rice fields and the surrounding forests that play an important role in their traditional lifestyle. The forest provides them with wild fruits and vegetables, plants for traditional medicines and occasionally meat from a wild animal.
In Mas, a few young men enter the village on scooters. They carry heavy concrete poles with them, which they plan to use to make a boundary for the village’s burial site. This is part of the spiritual forest, a sacred place for the Kreung minority, which should not be disturbed because it could upset the community’s ancestors. ‘We need to enclose the burial site with a boundary because there are people looking to grab our land,’ farmer Noeur Kroeun says.
Kroeun attended several training sessions on how to protect his community’s land. The training makes people stronger, he says, but there’s a harsh reality he and his fellow-villagers have to face. ‘Even when we have a lot of knowledge, it doesn’t stop powerful speculators from coming. They come with a lot of money, and they have good connections with the authorities.’
In the nearby village of Koy, a group of people has gathered to chat, drink and smoke. 72-year-old Sal Barnuy is among them. Despite her age, Barnuy still moves around quite easily. ‘When I was young, there were trees everywhere. The forest provided us with all we need,’ she says. ‘But much of it is gone already. If we lose more forest, life is going to be even more difficult. That’s why we need to protect it.’
‘Sometimes the government doesn’t even respond to our concerns’
Leng Sarorn, development watch programme manager at Equitable Cambodia
‘EC has been providing training activities in Ratanakiri since 2018 with support from ICCO. Our training, which takes place in twelve different villages, teaches the local affected indigenous population negotiation and communication skills. We see, as a result, that they’re able to organise meetings and have the ability to engage with different stakeholders, such as the government and companies that want to use their land unlawfully.
It takes a long time to resolve land conflicts. But the workshops boost the community representatives’ confidence. In the past, they were often very shy. Now they’re much more capable of drawing attention to their case. Companies that want take their land now recognise them and realise they need to talk with them.
We work closely together with the Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP), the Cambodian Indigenous Peoples Organization (CIPO) and the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC). Although we conduct our workshops separately, we communicate with each other and cooperate with regard to advocacy goals.’