banlung, Ratanakkiri province -Rights groups and NGOs working with hill tribes in northeastern Cambodia say recent changes to the draft land law will leave indigenous people with little protection against land speculators, logging companies and powerful officials.
“The government doesn’t seem to pay much attention to the hill tribes,” said Gordon Paterson, of the Non-Timber Forest Products Project, which works in Ratanakkiri. “This law doesn’t seem to protect their rights to collective property.”
The group of Ratanakkiri NGOs have written to the Asian Development Bank, which funded the drafting of the new land law, asking it to demand the articles regarding indigenous people be restored to their original form.
NGOs in Ratanakkiri were pleased with the draft law as it was written in December, commending the government for protecting the rights of indigenous people. But during interministerial meetings in May, they said, the law changed drastically.
“Now the draft chapter has been slashed from a recommended 11 articles to a paltry five articles, with almost all of its original intent and strength being removed,” a group of Ratanakkiri NGOs said in a statement last week. “It is clearly contrary to human and indigenous people’s rights agreements and the government policy of equitable law reform.”
The group said deleting the articles could make indigenous people vulnerable to abuses by land speculators. More worrisome than what was taken out, the group said, is what was put in.
Article 26 originally stated that no civil or military authority outside an indigenous community could acquire any rights to the community’s land, regardless of rank or jurisdiction.
But according to the revisions, indigenous people’s land rights “cannot be an obstacle to any process in the general interest.”
The government can revoke land rights if they go against the “general interest,” which is not defined, meaning the rights could be disregarded when convenient.
Nou Saing Khan, secretary of state for the Ministry of Land Management and Construction, said Wednesday some articles in the draft were changed and deleted because they were too long. But he added that the draft will be altered and improved until it is acceptable.
The draft land law is now being revised in interministerial meetings. Then it will be sent to the Council of Ministers for approval, though no deadline has been set for completing the revisions.
Until it gets to the Council of Ministers, articles can be altered or deleted and deleted articles can be restored.
“It’s not a finished process,” said Janet King, in-country director of the University of San Francisco’s Cambodia Law and Democracy Project. “Nothing’s definite.”
About 100,000 indigenous people live in northeastern Cambodia, mostly on lands allocated “permanently and in perpetuity for collective use of the members of the group,” says one article in the draft land law. It says the state may alter or restrict land only with the consent of the community.
But NGOs in Ratanakkiri fear the new Article 26 could be used to override those provisions.
Global Witness, which serves as an independent forestry monitor, recently reported that the rights of the local people have been abused “in every case” by commercial loggers operating in the concession granted to Hero Taiwan Co in Ratanakkiri.
If the land law regarding indigenous people is not strengthened, advocates say, hill tribes will likely lose access to forest products on land claimed by concessionaires. But even if the draft law is restored to its original form, Paterson said, indigenous people will be at risk until the government commits to protecting them. Hill tribes prefer collective ownership to individual land titles, as a matter of tradition and because they believe it will help protect the community from being tricked by land speculators. The biggest threat to indigenous lands comes from logging companies, some of which were granted concession land by the government that overlaps hill tribe land.