Gov’t to Award Three Communal Land Titles to Ethnic Bunong

Three ethnic Bunong communities in Mondolkiri province may soon receive long-awaited collective property titles, which would bring to six the total number of communal land titles granted to the country’s indigenous people since the Land Law was created in 2001.

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Bunong villagers in Bosra commune prepare for a ceremony to ask the spirits for forgiveness after being unable to protect their forest from destruction by a rubber company in May 2009. (Bill Herod)

And while the possible issuing of the three new communal titles is a significant—and long overdue—step forward for ethnic minority villagers, rights groups say that at least 200 minority groups also want the Land Management Ministry to issue communal titles for their communities. However, at the current rate of less than one communal land title being issued per year since the Land Law was passed, some worry that many minority communities will not receive titles in the near—or even distant—future.

The process is “almost 80 percent complete,” said Em Sopheak, coordinator for the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) in Mondolkiri, who has been involved in the effort to secure the three communal titles in Keo Seima district.

Communal land titles, unlike private individual titles, award collective ownership to a group of people, and are intended to protect the ancestral land of ethnic minorities from outside buyers and property speculators. Communal titles include designated areas for residential use, traditional rotational farming, forest graveyards and “spirit forests.”

The three new titles will apply to more than 100 indigenous families who live on more than 1,000 hectares of land in O’Chra and Kati villages in Sre Preah commune and Sre Lvy village in Sre Khtum commune, Mr. Sopheak said.

Nonn Pheany, deputy secretary-general at the department of land reform at the Land Management Ministry, confirmed that work is in progress to issue communal land titles to three Bunong villages in Keo Seima district.

Ms. Pheany also confirmed that the three would bring the total number of communal land titles ever issued to six.

While the provision for granting communal land titles has existed for more than a decade, it took until December last year for the government to issue the first such titles to an ethnic Kreung village and an ethnic Tumpoun village in Ratanakkiri province. A third title was awarded to a Bunong group in Mondolkiri’s O’Reang district in March.

Mr. Sopheak said efforts to secure the coming three titles in Keo Seima involved CLEC and the Danish International Development Agency, the aid arm of the Danish Foreign Ministry, working together on behalf of the applicants.

Despite the relative breakthrough in the promised issuance of the titles, Sal Vansay, director of the Indigenous Communities Support Organization (ICSO) said that many more communities are waiting for the government to recognize their communal property rights under the law.

According to Mr. Vansay, there are more than 160 ethnic minority communities waiting on legal recognition from the Interior Ministry, which will then allow them to apply for communal ownership titles. More than 30 other communities have already received recognition from the ministry and are now waiting on the Land Management Ministry to issue their communal titles, he said.

Addressing the long delays for communal titles, Ministry of Land Management spokesman Beng Hong Socheat Khemro called the issuance of communal titles “difficult,” because the area of land that must be measured is relatively large, and “time consuming,” because multiple government ministries are involved in the process.

“For ethnic minority land, it is those land[s] that sometimes are very difficult to assess…not to mention measure it,” Mr. Hong Socheat Khemro said.

He conceded, however, that issuance of the titles must become more frequent. “I think the goal of the government has to speed up,” he said, but declined to explain how this might happen.

Minority groups also have a role to play in increasing their chances of receiving a communal title, said ICSO’s Mr. Vansay, noting, “There needs to be consensus if they want to register for a communal land title.”

Mr. Sopheak of CLEC said that the communities in Keo Seima were united in their bid for communal land ownership, which had so far helped the process immensely.

“It is lucky that the indigenous villagers in Keo Seima district are so united, and refused to have their land measured for private titles,” Mr. Sopheak said. “Plenty of minority families are struggling to get communal land titles because other indigenous families [in the same community] want private titles,” he said.

One such divided community is a group of about 1,000 Bunong families living in Bosra commune in Mondolkiri’s Pech Chreada district.

Villagers in the community said earlier this month that the arrival of student volunteers in July—deployed across the country as part of a land titling program announced by Prime Minister Hun Sen—had created a rift among the Bunong, with some pushing for private titles to protect their property now, and others willing to hold out for the promise of a communal title in the future.

“Some are willing to sell out and go on with life, and some are willing to stand firm,” said Bill Herod, an adviser to The Bunong Place, a local NGO, who is also a long-time resident of Cambodia.

According to Mr. Herod, the community was once in solidarity and had long feuded with various rubber and timber firms encroaching on their land, which resulted in “near-violent confrontation” in several instances. Now, after facing years of such pressures, the community has fractured.

“I think the people in Bosra have been jerked around a lot, and that caused some divisions,” he said.

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