Hundreds of ethnic minority villagers in Ratanakkiri province walked away from a meeting on Wednesday with Minister of Industry, Mines and Energy Suy Sem over proposals for a massive iron ore mine that could be located on their land, rights workers and villagers claimed yesterday.
Indigenous Jarai villagers in O’Yadaw district’s Lumchor commune have protested several times at the test drilling sites of the Vietnamese firm, Hong Anh Ratanakkiri, since January, claiming the firm has encroached on their highland farms.
On Wednesday, approximately 400 indigenous Jarai and Tampuon villagers from O’Yadaw and Bokeo district showed up at Hong Anh’s office in Bokeo district to meet with company officials and Minister Suy Sem to discuss the firm’s plans for the area.
The villagers, however, left during an address by the minister, said Sok Pov, deputy governor for Bokeo district, who claimed that the villagers had misunderstood Mr Sem’s message.
“Because the majority of these people are indigenous, they could not understand the Khmer language, which is why they failed to understand the meaning of Minister Suy Sem’s message,” Mr Pov said.
“After local officials who speak their language explained things, they understood they would receive compensation doubling their current income,” Mr Pov said, adding that the villagers were promised that if the company does not locate iron ore, their land will be refilled and returned with the compensation.
Sev Youn, a villager representative in Lumchor commune who took part in the meeting and the walk-out, said the minister indicated that local communities had no choice but to make way for the mine.
“The minister told participants that if their farmland is affected by the iron ore mining company, they must give their land to the firm,” Mr Youn said.
Mr Sem made no mention of a relocation site for villagers, he added.
Hong Anh Ratanakkiri has its sights set on mining for iron ore on 15,400 hectares land stretching between Bokeo and O’Yadaw districts. The firm is currently in its exploratory stage but indications are that test drilling proves the 15, 400 hectare mine would be viable. The Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy has not yet granted a full exploration license to the firm.
Mr Sem could not be contacted for comment yesterday and several calls to Hong Anh provincial office went unanswered.
Last week, international mining experts, companies, government officials and aid agencies gathered for a two-day conference in Phnom Penh to discuss the major issues affecting Cambodia’s mining sector.
In a speech at the conference Mr Sem said: “Companies need to take into account communities living in the mining area through their engagement and respect for their local traditions and practices.”
Indigenous rights group says that mining activities radically change the natural geography and inherently threaten the existence of the country’s ethnic minorities who still live off the land.
“Generally these ethnic groups depend on the natural resources like forest products, fruit and vegetables,” said Tep Borin, provincial coordinator for the Indigenous Communities Support Organization in Ratanakkiri.
If a mining company was to start large-scale mining on their land, Mr Borin said locals would see their daily livelihoods completely destroyed.
“They depend on their land. A mine would greatly affect their livelihood and daily work,” he said, adding that close consultation between the government, mining company and local villagers would be essential if any fair outcome was to be realized in O’Yadaw and Bokeo.
Sev Thvan, Lumchor commune chief, said yesterday that, Mr Sem had come to the meeting with the villagers laden with gifts – $50 and 50 kilograms of rice for each family.
“To calm the villagers, the minister is here to give them donations and inform them to stop protesting against the firm,” he said.
Mr Yuon, the villager representative, said that the attendees at first refused the presents from the minister but later returned for the rice and cash. The receiving of the gifts was not an acceptance of the firm’s claim to their land, Mr Youn said.
In a position paper released last week ahead of the this week’s donor meeting, NGO Forum, an umbrella group of civil society organizations, said: “There is real concern that almost all indigenous land in many areas will be lost before it is possible to proceed with land titling.”
Rights groups have also said that new development targets between donors and the government on indigenous rights have been too weak and poorly implemented despite being enshrined in Cambodia’s Constitution.
“All we’ve seen so far is plenty of farmland belonging to indigenous villagers being lost or claimed by powerful officials,” said Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc.
“We are really concerned that the rights of indigenous villagers to use good quality soil is dying.”
One local mining consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that by their nature, iron ore mines radically change an area.
Such mines are “mainly on the surface over a wide area” and “They need to think volume,” he said.