Ethnic Minorities Risk More Than Just Land

The traditional practices and beliefs of Cambodia’s ethnic minority communities are in danger of disappearing as hundreds of indigenous families choose private land titles rather than collective ones—for which they have waited years.

–News Analysis

And while communal land titles—which designate areas for traditional rotation farming, forest graveyards and “spirit forests”—are designed to protect the age-old customs of the country’s indigenous people, minorities living in Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces continue to opt for private titles as a quicker way of protecting their ancestral land from speculators and developers.

“Their way of life [has] changed, their culture is finished,” said Sek Sophorn, national project coordinator for the International Labor Organization, which established the internationally binding Indigenous and Tribal People’s Convention in 1989.

Mr. Sophorn said that indigenous villagers who trade their right to collective land for much smaller private plots will be unable to plant and harvest crops on larger, annually rotating tracts of land, as their predecessors have done for centuries.

“Now that they accept the private [titles]…they cannot move like before,” he said, adding that most of the private plots indigenous villagers have received so far are as small as 1 hectare.

Ministry of Land Management spokesman Beng Hong Socheat Khemro, however, said yesterday that rights workers and indigenous villagers who claim that private land titles threaten indigenous traditions have no evidence to support their assertions.

“Their claims are baseless,” Mr. Hong Socheat Khemro said. “Research is needed to answer this question.”

But Yun Mane, chair of the Cambodian Indigenous Youth Association (CIYA) and an ethnic Bunong herself, said that the whole concept of private property was once foreign to minority groups.

“When they decide to have the private [title], that’s already part of the loss of tradition. It’s automatic,” Ms. Mane said.

“Indigenous people’s perception is not like the Khmer perception…. [They] are used to living in the collective way, not the private. So when they decide for private [titles], they may face a lot of problems.”

As a result, Ms. Mane said, greed will seep into the indigenous consciousness.

“When we become the private [land owners], we want everything to become ours,” she said.

“It sort of violates the traditional Bunong thinking about owning things in common,” said Bill Herod, a long-time resident of Mondolkiri and an adviser to The Bunong Place, an NGO based in the province.

When the French-owned Socfin rubber company purchased land owned by Bunong residents of Pech Chreada district’s Bosra commune, Mr. Herod said, the villagers used the proceeds to purchase cattle to graze on their former property, not understanding that they would not be allowed access to the area that they had just sold.

The animist beliefs most minority members hold will also fade with the loss of their shared land, CIYA’s Ms. Mane said.

“We believe that we are living with…the land, with the forest, with the water. We cannot survive without land, forest or water, and they are always the supporters behind us,” she said.

In 2005, when Bunong villagers living in Mondolkiri’s O’Reang district faced losing their land to Chinese timber firm Wuzhishan—which had been granted a huge pine-tree concession in the area—villagers prayed to the forest spirits for protection and for forgiveness should anything happen to the trees, Ms. Mane said.

“We wanted the spirits to protect us from the Wuzhishan [company], and please not be angry with the community,” she said.

Cambodia-based historian Henri Locard said that stewardship of the country’s forests has long been a tradition of its minority groups—and as they gradually disappear, so too will the forests.

“The worst is, of course, the destruction of the forest, and it is very tragic,” Mr. Locard said.

Though Cambodia’s Land Law was passed more than a decade ago, the first communal land titles were not issued until December last year, to an ethnic Kreung village and an ethnic Tampoun village in Ratanakkiri. A third title was granted to a Bunong village in Mondolkiri’s O’Reang district in March.

In contrast, more than 100,000 private land titles have been distributed since June nationwide, when the first of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s student volunteers were deployed across the country to measure land for private titles.

Ang Choulean, a professor at the Royal University of Fine Arts’ archeology faculty, said that Cambodia’s various minority groups have been slowly losing their identity for some time already.

“You cannot stop a big current of change like that; individually, you can do nothing. But if you are the government, you can have a policy to help them keep their identity,” Mr. Choulean said.

Though groups living in the country’s lowlands, such as the ethnic Kuy in the northwest and the ethnic Pear in Kampot province, have lived a “Khmer peasant life” since Angkorian times, Mr. Choulean said, groups in the northeast, including the Bunong, Jarai, Krung and Tampoun, have only been in close contact with Khmer culture for about 20 years.

“The northeast minority, they are very special because for a long time, they had no contact with Khmer,” he said.

Ror Chamroeun, an ethnic Jarai and the chief of Yasoum village in Soeng commune in Ratanakkiri’s Borkeo district, said while he worries the village’s roughly 100 indigenous families that are set to receive private titles may lose their customs, a more immediate fear is that they will lose their land altogether.

Because many people in the village are poor and indebted, Mr. Chamroeun explained, he expects the families that take private titles to sell the plots shortly after acquiring them, leaving them landless.

“Some people, they are in debt,” Mr. Chamroeun said, “So they will give their land away in order to get out of debt.”

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