Funds Dry Up for Project Advancing Indigenous Land Rights

The International Labor Organization’s widely praised project to support communal land title registration for Cambodia’s ethnic minorities will end this month due to a lack of funding, a staff member said.

Acting as coordinator between government bodies involved in land titling and indigenous communities seeking to register their communal land rights, the ILO’s “Support for Indigenous People’s Project” will end on February 28, the project’s coordinator Mr. Sek Sophorn said on Monday. 

With the closing of the almost 10-year-old project, Mr. Sophorn said the future looks bleak for indigenous people’s land rights.

“Without coordination from the ILO, it will take much more time and some villages won’t have any more chances” to get communal titles, Mr. Sophorn said.

The project, which began in 2005, was designed to allow indigenous groups to register for communal ownership of their ancestral lands as a means to prevent land loss to rapacious speculators and the politically powerful agro-industry sector.

Without proper land rights, many ethnic minority communities have been forced off their land, and newly landless minority members have been forced to work on rubber plantations and in factories, Mr. Sophorn said.

Since 2009, the project helped 95 communities successfully register for communal land titles with the government; however, just eight of these much-coveted titles have been granted.

“The ILO’s project has been playing an important role for coordinating with the Ministry of Rural Development and Ministry of Interior for…indigenous minority groups to get recognized,” said En Sopheak, provincial coordinator for the Community Legal Education Center in Mondolkiri province.

At least 10 indigenous minority communities in Mondolkiri province that begun the process for communal title have yet to receive legal recognition from the Ministry of Rural Development, despite having completed the application process, Mr. Sopheak said.

There are also four more communities currently in the process to gain collective land titles in neighboring Ratanakkiri province, Mr. Sopheak said, adding that he was not optimistic for the future.

The end of the ILO project is a disaster for indigenous communities that have yet to be registered for communal ownership, said Ny Noeun, secretary of Trapaing K’oeum forest community in Pou Chrei commune, in Mondolkiri province’s Pech Chreada district.

“If the program ends, we are extremely concerned about losing not only the forest, but all of our land,” said Mr. Noeun, adding that the indigenous community of Trapaing K’oeum, has been registered with the Ministry of Interior since 2006, but has yet to apply for collective land titles.

“The minority communities have been losing their forest to private companies and individuals who are logging luxury trees,” Mr. Noeun said.

According to Mr. Sophorn, funding for the project through 2013 was provided by the German development agency, GIZ. That funding ended on December 31, and a new proposal from the ILO seeking continued funding from GIZ was submitted too late to be considered for 2014.

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