Ethnic Bunong villagers in Mondolkiri province’s Pech Chreada district are bitterly divided over how best to protect their ancestral land amid efforts by authorities to map it in preparation for property titles.
Bosra commune chief Yoeth Sarin said that since student volunteers—deployed across the country as part of a new titling program announced by Prime Minister Hun Sen in June – arrived in the commune in July, about half of the more than 1,000 Bunong families living there have had their land measured.
The remaining 500 families, however, have refused to have their land measured as they fear they will lose their chance at receiving a communal land title, which is specific to ethnic minority groups such as the Bunong.
Communal land titles, unlike private individual titles, award collective ownership to a group of people, and are intended to protect the land of ethnic minorities from outside development.
Mr. Sarin said the advantages of a communal land title far outweigh that of multiple private titles for the Bunong.
“When you receive a communal title, you get more farmland and forestland,” Mr. Sarin said. “The benefits include having a spirit forest, rotating farmland and [forest] graveyard areas,” Mr. Sarin said, explaining that the Bunong people use swidden farming techniques, which require annually rotating tracts of land.
Communal titles recognize such things as sacred “spirit forests” and rotating farms, he said.
“For private titles, each family is eligible to receive a [small] plot of residential land and a plot of farmland. It means getting less farmland,” he said, noting that the maximum plot of land that can be granted under Mr. Hun Sen’s initiative is five hectares.
Debate over the issue of private and communal titles has split the community in half, villagers in Bosra say.
“Since the arrival of the student volunteers [in July], there has been no solidarity among us,” said Phlang Sin, 52, a Bunong man who refuses to have his land measured. “We have split, because some families want private titles while others want communal titles.”
Mr. Sin said that were they to receive private titles, large families that now farm on rotating 10- to 20-hectare plots of forestland would be forced to make do with single plots as small as five hectares in size.
“We are deeply concerned that the remaining land will be granted as an economic land concession to private companies,” he added.
One villager, who declined to be named for fear of retribution, said a private title in the hand now was better than waiting on a communal title that many never be granted by the government.
“The community land title, we haven’t got yet…. “This [private] land measuring is now,” he said, adding that any sort of title would do for those currently living on contested land.
Ny Chakrya, head of monitoring at rights group Adhoc, said that the Bunong community is not well informed about the titling process, and that communal titles would be a better option in order for villagers to protect their land.
“If the indigenous people have the private land, it is easy for the company to take that land,” Mr. Chakrya said. “The local authority and the state have the obligation to protect the collective land,” he added.
Bosra commune residents have long feuded with various rubber companies in the area who have encroached on their ancestral lands.
In December 2008, about 400 Bunong villagers destroyed several excavators belonging to the Khaou Chuly rubber company, which had been awarded nearly 3,000 hectares in Bosra commune to clear part of the forest for a rubber plantation.
The community is currently engaged in a land dispute with French-owned rubber company Socfin KCD, said Mr. Sarin, the commune chief.