Eighteen years ago, long before the roads cutting through the red hills of Ratanakkiri were paved, some 300 indigenous Kreung families living on a hill above a stream in O’Chum district sent a petition to the Ministry of Land Management.
Their request was straightforward. They wanted a title to their land, some 2,600 hectares, on which—as a community—they planted brown upland rice, sacrificed buffalo to their gods and buried their dead.
Eighteen years and more than $100,000 later, they finally got it.
However, Krolah village—one of four indigenous communities to receive titles this year—no longer looks like it did in 1998. Most of the forest now consists of low brush and patches of cassava.
Logging trucks roar by on the main road after dark, hauling timber from the lower reaches of Virachey National Park to National Road 7, the northeastern artery to Vietnam.
The trees, which the villagers used for firewood, for the lodgepoles of their houses and as shelter for their spirits and ghosts, are all but gone.
“Whoever had power and money—they took the trees,” said Ly Sam Oeun, a community organizer in Krolah. “But the land remains.”
Though the forest had disappeared and the stream is drying, resident of Krolah—who were all afraid, some drinking too much to drown their worries and others working tirelessly to secure the land—still feel lucky, Mr. Sam Oeun said.
“We didn’t want to become like other villages—like everyone around us—with no land to live on,” he said. “We’ve seen what’s happened in O’yadaw, Lumphat, Andong Meas.”
Law of the Land
The right of Cambodia’s indigenous communities to register collective land titles was laid out in the Land Law of 2001, though Krolah petitioned for theirs informally years earlier. The provision was a nod both to indigenous peoples’ reliance on their traditional land, and to the power of collective bargaining in keeping hold of a parcel of land, said Kit Touch, a legal adviser with the Community Legal Education Center.
It is also, as the years have made clear, a potential means to protect Cambodia’s rapidly disappearing forests. Rangers, paid little by the state, can be made to turn a blind eye to logging. Communities whose lives depend on forests, however, are far less easily bought—at least, those that have communal titles.
But while the titling provision has existed for well over a decade, less than 3 percent of Cambodia’s 455 identified indigenous communities have received a land title, Mr. Touch said. More than 100 groups have petitioned, many well over a decade ago, according to data from Development and Partnership in Action (DPA), a local NGO supporting 14 such petitions.
Some say that the expense and length of the titling process is the reason why only 13 indigenous communities are titled today. The process, as catalogued by DPA, involves at least 10 steps and the approval of three different government ministries.
In the best circumstances, said Mr. Touch, it can be completed in three years, but only if there are no competing land claims and more money than any indigenous subsistence farmer—or any village of indigenous subsistence farmers—could ever hope to have.
“The support for the titles doesn’t come from the indigenous people. They don’t have it. It comes from the NGOs,” said Heng Sokha, who once worked on community land titling for the NGO Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP).
While some 20 NGOs have, at one point or another, attempted to support indigenous communities petitioning for land titles, just seven remain, according to DPA. Of these, Mr. Sokha said, two or three are about to run out of funding.
NTFP already has. “We managed to get five villages into having their titles processed by the Ministry of Land Management,” Mr. Sokha said. “Four more are in the process of petitioning, but we can’t help them anymore.”
Since they began their work, in 1998, NTFP has obtained just one community land title—Krolah’s, which was awarded in August. It cost the locally staffed and locally started NGO well over $100,000.
“We had to identify first with the Ministry of Rural Development,” he explained. “That was $4,000. Then we had to become a legal entity with the Ministry of Interior. That was $4,200…. Then we had to map the land. That’s $2,500. Then the Ministry of Land Management had to survey the land. That was $38 per hectare.”
With the additional burden of conducting meetings in the villages and teaching indigenous people—often illiterate in Khmer—to fill out lengthy paperwork, he said the cost quickly became overwhelming.
Most villagers and NGOs say it isn’t the money, however, that has stopped communities from getting titled—or rather, that the expense and difficulty are a symptom of a far deeper problem. The Cambodian government, bent on resource extraction and foreign investment, puts little value, they say, on the lives of the indigenous poor.
The German development agency GIZ has sunk, over 16 years, some $1 million into land titling in Cambodia, said Adelbert Eberhart, country director of GIZ. But after realizing how little the funds had produced, and how little the government sought to help, it pulled all its remaining funding for land programs in Cambodia in June.
“The Cambodian ministries did not follow the objectives of the contract,” he said. “The discussion is one of human rights. Germany is a Western country. We have a different focus than the Cambodian government does, and there is too big a gap.”
The process is deliberately slow and costly in order to keep land from the indigenous people, Mr. Touch said.
“It’s a question of the priorities of the government and its international financial donors,” he explained. “They are market-oriented and think of strategic uses for the land—rubber, or cassava, or local businesses. They’d like lowlanders and businesses to take the highlanders’ land.”
After his years of work with the non-timber NGO, Mr. Sokha said it would be hard not to reach the same conclusion. “This is what we see and understand; the ministries are not happy with giving land to indigenous people. They do not want to.”
Money isn’t the only thing that has kept land from the indigenous people.
Government pressure and pessimism about the process has whittled away communities’ resolve, and forced many indigenous families into accepting private titles—which, all too frequently, they are later pressured to sell, by force or poverty.
Hundreds of ethnic Tampuon and Bunong families in Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri accepted private land titles during Mr. Hun Sen’s land-titling scheme in 2012, in which student volunteers were dispatched to provinces to survey and grant titles. But many later said that it wasn’t made clear to them at the time that accepting the private title meant forfeiting a right to a community title.
Others said that they willingly abandoned hope of a communal title, even though they’d applied already, out of fear that the title would never materialize and a nearby rubber company would grab their land.
Asked about the difficulty and length of the community land titling process, the Ministry of Land Management denied any attempts at obstruction.
“It needs time,” ministry spokesman Seng Loth said. “There are many steps you must follow and many details that have to be checked to make a community fully legal.”
Asked if the government would prefer to give land titles to businesses or lowland Khmer citizens, Mr. Loat laughed, and explained that many indigenous people had different aspirations, giving anecdotes of indigenous people selling all their land in order to own motorbikes or televisions.
“Some of our indigenous brothers and sisters don’t want community titles. Some are like me or you—they want their own titles, private titles,” he said. “Many communities can’t even work together to agree on if they want a community title or not.”
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