banlung, Ratanakkiri province – Poorly planned concessions and development projects are threatening the livelihoods of the hill-tribe peoples in the northeast so much that they are resorting to encroaching on protected areas, officials said last week.
“Most of the investors have used money to entice us because they’ve seen our abundant natural resources,” Ratanakkiri Governor Kep Chuk Tema told workshop participants here. “And they will destroy the environment, tradition and culture of the indigenous tribes, leaving complicated problems behind.”
Officials from the northeast provinces of Ratanakkiri, Stung Treng, Kratie, Mondolkiri and Preah Vihear gathered at a three-day workshop last week to discuss possible solutions to the problems. Several indigenous people invited to participate in the workshop complained that their land has eroded since loggers started cutting down trees near their farms.
“My father told me that since our forefathers, the land has never been infertile,” Thorng Yarth, of the Kreung hill tribe, said in a loud, emotional voice. But now, he said, the land is becoming near-barren.
Last year alone, more than $100 million worth of illegal logging occurred in the northeast, environmental watchdog group Global Witness has charged. In addition, government conservation officials have reported that endangered animals such as tigers, elephants and sun bears have declined by 70 percent in the past two decades.
Northeast Cambodia is home to more than 100,000 hill-tribe people. Contrary to popular belief, environmental officials say, slash-and-burn or swidden agricultural techniques used by the indigenous can be—and have been—sustainable over the long term if population density is not too great.
Environmental officials say, slash-and-burn or swidden agricultural techniques used by the indigenous can be—and have been—sustainable over the long term if population density is not too great.
But the indigenous in Cambodia increasingly are being threatened by powerful outside pressures ranging from loggers and plantation operators to land speculators.
Human rights workers from the local group Adhoc said at the workshop that some hill-tribe people have been duped by speculators to leave their ancestral lands for just a little more than a motorcycle or a small amount of money.
Participants complained that the government has granted concessions without consultation with local authorities and residents whose farmlands and houses are affected.
In 1995, 2,500 Jarai hill-tribe people lost their land when the government granted a concession for a 20,000-hectare palm oil plantation in O’Ya-Daw district near the Cambodia-Vietnam border, according to a report released at the workshop. Currently, the hill-tribe people live in a section within the concession boundaries. But they will be forced to relocate if the project becomes more successful, the report said.
Just last January, the government granted Pheapimex-Fuchan, which has been identified by Global Witness as the country’s worst timber operator, a 350,000-hectare concession in Stung Treng and Ratanakkiri provinces.
That deal came despite urging by the World Bank not to grant any new concessions until the completion of World Bank-funded studies and a new forestry legislation.
Preah Vihear Third Deputy Governor Long Sovann said that forest concessions in his province have done little for the local residents—except endangering the forest that they depend on for their livelihoods.
“The less concessions [in Preah Vihear], the less destruction of forest,” Long Sovann said simply.
Prime Minister Hun Sen declared in late October a four-point plan to save forests, which he acknowledged have been damaged more in the past four years than during any other period of Cambodia’s history.
The measures include reviewing concession contracts, reforesting ravaged areas, preparing a forest-management decree and halting new investment in wood processing.
But more than just reviewing concession contracts needs to be done, workshop participants here said. They contended that villages and farmlands should not be part of future concession areas.
The participants also advised establishing firmer boundaries of national parks and other protected areas, and granting land titles to local people at the provincial level.
Currently, Cambodia’s indigenous are unable to get title to land they have occupied for hundreds of years.