Cambodia has numerous laws and instruments in place that should theoretically protect the rights of indigenous peoples.
It is a signatory to the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 on the Lands of Indigenous Peoples, which gives indigenous peoples the right to engage with and access the national policy development process.
The 2001 Land Law recognizes the cultural and traditional lifestyle and the agricultural practices of indigenous communities. Article 26 of the law explicitly recognizes collective land ownership, although loopholes in the law allow for private ownership.
Article 28 stipulates that no authority outside the community may acquire any rights to immovable properties belonging to an indigenous community.
The National Policy on Indigenous Peoples and the 2002 Forestry Law both contain specific measures covering the rights of the indigenous communities, for the respect and conservation of the spirits that indigenous communities revere in their sacred forests, where thousand-year-old trees are ordained by monks.
As property of the state, these forests are supposedly under the management of the Ministry of Agriculture. The law also gives indigenous peoples the right to a livelihood based on the byproducts of the forests.
The role of the Ministry of Environment in the implementation of the 2008 Protected Area Law should be significant, as the ministry has the authority to evaluate the results of the required environmental and social impact assessment for any land concessions or projects in the protected areas, and can even call for scientific evaluation before the area is modified.
And then there is the reality.
These legal instruments have gone almost entirely unenforced and unimplemented in the existing culture of impunity and corruption.
Economic land and mining concessions have had a disastrous impact on indigenous communities over the past decade. Loopholes in the laws and promotion of mega-investment at the expense of local and indigenous development initiatives have essentially put Cambodia up for sale to the highest bidder.
Indigenous weaving, music and other traditional arts face extinction because natural dyes from the forests are increasingly hard to find, because of the almost nonexistent national budget to promote cultures of the indigenous peoples.
Medicinal roots have been a source of relief for childbirth for generations, but a trip into the forest is now harder for the women, as many forests are now part of rubber plantations and well-guarded by private security guards.
We have a legal and moral obligation to put a stop to this.
Our indigenous peoples are bound to the forests, where the protective spirits of their ancestors remain. What they lack is protection from the authorities. They should be the ones to say what form of development they need and to define the destiny of the next generations of indigenous peoples. They need the courage of Environment Minister Say Sam Al to champion their cause.
This is why it is a cause for grave concern that the minister said recently that indigenous peoples should look outside forests for ways to earn a living. “What we are trying to do is develop our agriculture industry to create jobs for our people, so hopefully they do not have to depend on the forests anymore,” he was quoted as saying in The Cambodia Daily (Minister Says Minorities Should Rely Less on Forests, March 21).
Taking indigenous peoples away from their lands and forests is not just a recipe for disaster, but a violation of their human rights. There is no way to justify the long-term impact on their children’s future. It leaves them at high risk of falling prey to forced migration and other forms of human exploitation.
Cambodia also has an obligation to try to mitigate climate change, as it will be one of the worst-affected countries due to its geographical location. The legalization of deforestation through the manipulation of sub-decrees and government directives must stop immediately, with strict and independent inspections of all economic land concessions in indigenous areas, and legal action taken if necessary.
Mu Sochua is a member of parliament from Battambang province for the Cambodia National Rescue Party.