Indigenous groups across the country urged the government to do more to respect their rights and protect their land on Wednesday as they gathered to mark the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.
Despite increased legal support and more robust attempts to settle local issues, indigenous Cambodians still face overwhelming problems with the loss of ancestral lands and dwindling natural resources due to development, said a statement issued by the Cambodia Indigenous Peoples Alliance.
“These development projects make us, the indigenous people, become victims on our own ancestral land and do not give us the benefits of development,” the statement reads. “We are badly suffering both mentally and physically.”
Indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by development projects in remote areas of the country, and despite multiple appeals to the government for official land titles, little has been done to remedy the situation, according to the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR).
In February last year, CCHR calculated that only 11 of the country’s 458 indigenous communities had been able to secure land titles from the government. By June of this year, CCHR said the number had only risen by seven.
Ream Pourai, a 28-year-old member of the Kuoy ethnic group in Kompong Thom province, said on Wednesday that 100 Kuoy villagers had met in Andas village and marched 1 km in Prasat Balaing district’s Sala Visai commune to mark the day. Along with traditional Kuoy dance performances, they held ceremonies to honor their ancestors and spirits.
“We want to keep our tradition alive,” Ms. Pourai said, adding that most of the 100 families in her village had lost their farms to a rubber company that took over the land in 2010. “We protested, but no solution was ever found,” she said.
In its statement, the Cambodia Indigenous Peoples Alliance urged the government to revoke the exploration licenses of mining companies in Ratanakkiri province and rubber plantations in Preah Vihear province, accelerate land dispute resolution in Ratanakkiri and give full rights to indigenous people for the use of a number of sacred hills in Mondolkiri province.
Dam Samnang, a 31-year-old Bunong resident in Stung Treng province, said on Wednesday that about 180 Bunong people from Srekor and Kbal Romeas villages had gathered to air grievances over their evacuation from their homes due to the 400-megawatt Lower Sesan II dam.
Both villages lie within what will turn into the dam’s 36,000-hectare reservoir.
The majority of the area’s 5,000 residents reluctantly agreed to move to nearby resettlement sites, but about 120 families in the two villages have refused to leave.
Mr. Samnang said that 16 young people from Kompong Thom province had their van stopped on Tuesday while attempting to travel to Kbal Romeas village to commemorate the day. The 16 were forced to walk about 6 km to the village, he said.
Men Kong, spokesman for the provincial government of Stung Treng, said that “outsiders” were not allowed to go to the village because of “security reasons.”
“Outsiders are not allowed to enter as we are ready to intervene [to evacuate] the people when the sluice gates will close,” Mr. Kong said, adding that the gates are slated to close officially next month.
But Mr. Samnang said: “We want this village to live on and are determined to defend our spirit forests and burial land.”