One day after government officials promised indigenous Suoy families living in the Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuary that their land would remain unharmed by private agribusiness activities in the area, rights groups said the resolution was proof that the ethnic minority group’s rights had already been violated.
In a statement released yesterday, the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact said that numerous agribusiness and tourism concessions have been granted to private corporations within the wildlife sanctuary by the government.
On Monday, representatives of more than 350 indigenous Suoy families living in Aural came to a resolution with two government officials over the economic land concession granted to the Singapore-linked HLH Agriculture Cambodia Co Ltd, which according to villagers overlapped their ancestral lands by about 2,000 hectares.
“The Suoy people immediately expressed their resistance to the concessions, asserting their right over their land and resources,” AIPP said in the statement. “However, the HLH Company started its operation for corn plantation in June 2009 without proper consultation or consent by the Suoy people,” the group said.
The statement said that members of the Suoy community had thumb printed papers provided by local authorities for apparent “land security” reasons, only to see them again as part of an environmental impact assessment supporting their land being taken away.
“This sort of behavior deserves the condemnation of the international community. It is clearly an act of attempted ethnocide for the remaining ten communities of the [Suoy] people — the only remaining [Suoy] communities in the world,” the statement continued.
Sao Van Sey, executive director for the Indigenous Communities Support Organization, said Monday’s reported resolution, although positive, was by no means a sign that a new leaf had been turned in the government’s policy toward the rights of indigenous communities.
“This might be a rethinking,” he said. “But we have had some experience in other areas where the problems come up again.”
Mr Van Sey said that even in Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri provinces, where there are many instances of indigenous communities losing their traditional lands, positive outcomes have been reached. But such solutions can be temporary and inconclusive, he said.
On Friday, a UN panel announced in Geneva that Cambodia appeared unable to enforce legal protections against discrimination for Cambodia’s ethnic minorities.
The timing of the decision to appease the Suoy in Aural, said Mr Van Sey, could be proof that this case is being used as an “international tool” after such stern criticism from the UN.
He added that threats to indigenous communities from firms that practice land grabbing as well as from the rich and powerful were still common in areas inhabited by Cambodia’s indigenous communities.
Indeed, rights workers say that land titles for Suoy communities have never been considered, despite strong claims from the government this week to protect their land.
Pen Bonnar, Ratanakkiri provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, expressed hope yesterday that the government officials’ promises to the last remaining Suoy population would shine through in future cases involving other indigenous communities.
“We always have to have hope,” Mr Bonnar said. “If there is no struggle there is no change.”
Thuk Kroeun Vudtha, secretary of state of the Ministry of Environment, who made the promise of no loss of Suoy land on Monday, expressed a more guarded hope yesterday that the community will not lose their land to HLH.
“The experts are working on the situation and I hope everything will be OK,” he said. “We will solve this issue and no problem will take place.”
Ang Chee Yen, operations manager at HLH Agriculture Cambodia Co Ltd, said it would be a number of weeks before any further details could be provided on the new boundary line for the company’s agribusiness concession in Aural.
“I want to hear from the authorities so they can tell us what to do next,” he said.