A land dispute in Mondolkiri province has pitted a Malaysian corporation against 128 ethnic Bunong families, a flare-up of a long-running disagreement over land the community claims is communal forest and the company insists was granted as an economic land concession (ELC).
The dispute highlights the complexity of Cambodia’s indigenous land titling system, which requires approval from at least three separate ministries in addition to multiple local authorities, and has proven difficult for many indigenous communities to secure.
In this case, a group of Bunong ethnic minority residents of O’Reang district’s Dak Dam commune have accused Mega First Corporation Berhad of clearing what they say is communal forest land to grow coconut trees.
Mega First could not immediately be reached for comment.
Suk Kros, a 40-year-old villager who lives in the commune’s Pou Les village, said on Monday that he and about 50 other villagers had witnessed their forest being cleared with tractors and excavators operated by employees of the Malaysian company, which was granted an ELC in the area in 2012.
“We went to the area…and saw the company’s workers clear a plot of the communal land,” Mr. Kros said on Monday. He said the villagers decided to discuss the issue with the rights group Adhoc, and did not try to stop the company.
Mega First is also behind the Don Sahong dam, located just inside Laos on the Cambodian border — which multiple environmental NGOs are worried will have potentially devastating consequences for Cambodian fisheries — and is headed by Goh Nan Kioh, the director of Angkor Beer-producer Cambrew. His company’s ELC extends over multiple indigenous communities in Dak Dam commune and has sparked disputes in the past.
Following protests from villagers in 2012, the provincial government cut 2,000 hectares of Mega First’s 9,000-hectare ELC to give to the indigenous communities, according to district governor Nang Tunnary.
That solution appeared to have mollified villagers’ concerns temporarily. But now the company has restarted its clearing operation, according to Sok Rotha, Adhoc’s provincial coordinator for human rights, who has helped villagers file complaints with authorities regarding Mega First.
“The villagers filed a complaint with Adhoc [early this year] and we passed this letter to the provincial authority, asking them to stop the company from clearing the communal land,” Mr. Rotha said. “But they have not found a resolution for the people.”
Mr. Tunnary, the district governor, said that he had heard reports of the clearing on Monday and sent Dak Dam commune chief Sam Vanny to investigate, but had not heard back from him yet.
Mr. Vanny could not be reached on Monday, but his deputy, Chas Na, told reporters he had gone in his boss’s place. Mr. Na said he saw the cleared land yesterday, and also reported that his visit to the area in mid-June revealed at least four plots of communal land had been cleared to grow coconut trees.
The indigenous community in Pou Les does not have a land title but is in the process of submitting an application, according to Mr. Tunnary and Mr. Kros. District authorities measured the land earlier this year in order to help the community pursue the communal land title registration process, the governor said, adding that the district government would soon submit its work to the Interior Ministry.
Registering a communal land title usually takes about three years and can be near-impossible without outside assistance, according to longtime indigenous rights activist Yun Mane.
“The procedure is very complicated and its costs a lot of money,” Ms. Mane said yesterday. “Without support — the technical and financial support from the different NGOs, donors or the government — the [indigenous community] could not apply for collective land registration.”
Communal land title registration requires the submission of documents to the Rural Development, Interior and Land Management ministries, as well as consulting with commune-, district- and provincial-level authorities.
Ms. Mane noted that even without a land title, indigenous people’s land rights were still protected by national and international laws.
“Based on the national law and the U.N. declaration on indigenous people’s rights, it clearly states that even if we don’t have the title, we maintain our rights over our land,” said Ms. Mane, who is also a member of the Bunong minority.
Article 23 of Cambodia’s Land Law, passed in 2001, states, “prior to their legal status being determined under a law on communities, the groups actually existing at present shall continue to manage their community and immovable property according to their traditional customs and shall follow the provisions of this law.”
It also notes that indigenous land extends beyond currently cultivated land to include land needed for shifting cultivation practices common among indigenous communities.
Article 28 of the law states that “no authority outside the community may acquire any rights to immovable properties belonging to an indigenous community.”
A 2015 report submitted to the World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty about Cambodia’s indigenous land rights found that these legal protections can fall short when put into practice.
“Communal land-titling programs for indigenous communities exist, but there is little protection for indigenous land, even under interim protection measures,” the report says, adding that the “lack of transparency and accountability as regards the practice of ELCs in Cambodia” often leads to disputes and loss of indigenous land rights.