siem reap city – Representatives from NGOs and Cambodia’s ethnic minority groups yesterday called on the government to pay more attention to the threats posed to indigenous communities by mining and land concessions.
“Those land concessions, it is the land that people live on,” said Dam Chanthy, the ethnic Jarai director of the Banlung Highland Association. “Indigenous peoples are suffering, and today we…ask the government to work more to protect our land, forests and resources.”
About 1,000 people, including more than 300 villagers from 15 provinces representing ethnic minority groups, gathered at Banteay Srei temple, near Siem Reap City, to mark the 16th International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.
Also present was Minister of Rural Development Chea Sophara, who said that the government had begun to create policy to protect the rights of indigenous people in the 1980s and early 1990s and would continue to do so.
Speakers at the event applauded the government for its efforts to enshrine the rights of indigenous people in law, such as the Land Law of 2001 and the National Policy on the Development of Indigenous Peoples, launched in July 2009. But they stressed that a great deal remains to be done, particularly in the areas of transparency and consultation with indigenous groups over development of their ancestral lands.
“We would like the government, before giving concessions to companies, to let indigenous people join the discussion,” said Chhit Sam Ath, executive director of NGO Forum.
According to Ms Chanthy of the Banlung Highland Association, helping indigenous people protect their ancestral lands is largely a matter of enforcing laws that already exist.
“The laws are in place, but they are not 100 percent implemented–there are loopholes,” she said. “A main problem is that the promotion and dissemination of the [Land Law] is in Khmer, so the indigenous people do not understand.”
Speakers were also concerned that development within minority areas is resulting in an unfair distribution of the economic benefits that such projects can provide. Of particular concern is the mining sector, said Lim Solinn, regional coordinator of Oxfam America’s East Asia office.
Nonn Theany, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Land Management, said that the government works hard to protect indigenous people, but that it can be difficult to identify minority land in sparsely populated areas and find capable translators into minority languages.
“In principle, the government will reserve pieces of land for [minorities] if their land is affected [by development], but it is very hard to verify if they are really indigenous people,” she added.
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)