Hill Tribes Struggle for Control of Forests Where They Live

krala village, Ratanakkiri pro­vince – In 1993, Kreung hill-tribe people here began noticing poles staked along their village borders.

Fearing speculators were trying to claim their ancestral lands, the Kreung elders tore down the poles and began to devise ways to get communal, or collective, ownership of the land on which their 850-hectare village sits.

They are now preparing a formal request to the Council of Ministers in Phnom Penh with help from an NGO.

If successful, the village could be a milestone for hill-tribe land rights in Cambodia. It would be the first time indigenous people were recognized as owners of the forests in which they have lived for generations.

However, the villagers’ request faces legal obstacles, according to government officials.

Bang Ngan, a village resident in his 20s, said that the Krala villagers want to obtain ownership because they are afraid of losing their ancestral land to businessmen and speculators. He said the village as a whole should own the land because of fears that if one villager is tempted to sell a plot of land, others might follow suit.

“If we sell land to the outsiders, our children will have no land to cultivate and live on,” Bang Ngan said.

Others echoed that sentiment.

“If the indigenous people in the northeast are not allowed to protect their land and forest, they will become refugees,” said Gordon Paterson, whose NGO, the Non-Timber Forest Products project, is working with the 300-resident village.

Some hill-tribe villages are seeking management rights for forests instead of land titles.

Paterson’s NGO has also been working with other Kreung hill-tribe villages in the same Ya Poey commune to get government permission to manage 5,000 hec­tares of forest for 99 years. That application, first filed in the summer of 1997 but held up for various reasons, also could serve as a model for land rights for Cam­bodia’s more than 100,000 indigenes.

Ratanakkiri Third Deputy Governor Sa Phim said in an interview that provincial officials would agree to a forest management plan in Krala village, but he said ownership is controversial.

“To allow the hill-tribe people to protect and manage forestland is very important,” Sa Phim said. “But giving co-ownership of land to them is questionable.”

He noted that the village land as defined in current law is state property. “Land [of the village] belongs to the government. It does not belong to any individual.”

Current law allows ownership of residential land but not agricultural land, said Janet King, the in-country director for the Univer­sity of San Francisco’s legal education program.

A proposed revised land law would allow ownership of cultivated land, she said, but it could require registration for temporary possession for five years before communal ownership could be obtained.

What might be easier, King said, is if the government and the hill tribes could come to a separate land management or ownership agreement possibly in the form of a subdecree.

Six Kreung hill-tribe villages in the Ya Poey commune in O’Chum district applied in the summer of 1997 for permission to protect and manage nearly 5,000 hectares of forestland for 99 years. Ratanakkiri provincial officials endorsed the plan, but the Ministry of Agriculture has re­quired the village to refile the application for national approval.

Krala was selected to test the communal ownership question, in part because it is the only village in the commune to do both the traditional slash-and-burn agriculture, called swidden farming, as well as rice cultivation in paddies. This provides an opportunity to study attitudes about tenure for different types of agricultural products, ac­cording to an NGO report.

The forest and the farms are central to the livelihoods of the hill-tribe members.

In the forest, the villagers fish, hunt and collect resin, firewood, rattan and bamboo for their own use. But they cannot hunt elephants, deer and other large animals, or cut and sell trees for profit.

Swidden cultivation involves cutting and cultivating the area in a cyclical fashion. In Krala, a plot of land may be cultivated for two or three years, then left fallow for eight to 10 years to regenerate.

When properly rotated and if the population density isn’t too high, soil fertility and tree cover are sustained, and the watershed protected, environmental studies have shown.

Besides livelihoods, ancestral beliefs here are also at stake.

A four-hectare “spirit forest” lies about 300 meters from the village. This forest is considered sacred. Animals in the forest cannot be hunted and trees are not allowed to be cut. If anyone disrespects the spirit forest in some way, they will get sick, the villagers believe.

With help from Paterson’s NGO, the Krala villagers have mapped clear boundaries separating their agriculture and forest lands and that of other villages nearby.

Villagers interviewed here maintained that they have and will continue to resist such tempting land offers from outsiders as money, motorcycles and cattle.

They noted that their village has a clear regulation forbidding the sale of village farmland. Vio­lators are to be fined the price of the land sale, with proceeds going to the communal village fund, or violators will be booted out of the village, they said.

New Agriculture Minister Chhea Song said last week that he supports the idea of indigenous people being able to protect their forestland.

But he noted that a community forest subdecree sent to the Council of Ministers earlier this year was not acted on by the previous government.

“We want the indigenous people to try to protect the forestland, but the law is not [yet] adopted,” Chhea Song said.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Smith)


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