Trees of Life
The indigenous people of Cambodia still live in close proximity to the tropical rainforests so vital for humanity at large, but which are now speedily being cut down. According to Alexandra Kent, docent of social anthropology, the government’s attempts to strengthen the indigenous people’s rights by introducing communal land ownership has proven a complicated and indiscriminate process.
With the global spread of neoliberalism and population growth, natural resources are becoming increasingly scarce and their market value is rising. This has led to countries all over the global South experiencing an escalation in disputes over the land on which these precious resources are to be found. It has also set alarms ringing about irreparable environmental degradation and climate change.
The delicate and complex ecologies of moist tropical rain forests are of immeasurable value for humankind and our planet. They remove pollutants from the soil, water and air and contribute to the stability of the climate. The consequences of losing them include soil erosion, flooding, landslides, siltation, reduced groundwater supplies, loss of biodiversity among flora and fauna and ultimately threats to human wellbeing and health.
Nevertheless, these forests are now under grave threat as state actors, who are often closely connected to or are indeed themselves business stakeholders, seek to exploit them. The rate of change to both the social and natural environment is unprecedented in human history. People practising rotating agriculture in forest areas are suffering the most immediate impacts - to their lifeworlds and livelihoods. Those who already rank among poorest in society are thus affected disproportionately since they are more reliant on forest products, are generally less informed and are more vulnerable to power abuse.
Studies have shown that the privatization of land ownership, which has been promoted as a way to provide greater tenure security for the most vulnerable in developing countries, has instead often led to increasing environmental degradation, deepening poverty and violent conflict over ownership.
Cambodia is one of the most disturbing examples of these processes today. As elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Cambodia is home to a number of minority groups who live largely in the forested, highland regions. There is no consensus concerning their number though estimates suggest that around 1.4% of the population or nearly 200,000 people qualify as indigenous, falling into some 24 ethnic groups. In Cambodia, they mainly inhabit the northeastern mountainous provinces of Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri, and the mountainous areas of Koh Kong Province in the Southwest. Many continue to practice slash-and-burn subsistence farming and animist religions and their way of life tends to be deeply interwoven with their forest environment.
The relationship between lowland Khmers and highland ‘others’ has historically been fluid. Lowland Khmer often refer to highlanders using the term ‘Bunong’ perjoratively and they have long associated highlanders with the tropical rain forest and the ‘wild’ (the Khmer word prei means forest and wild). In the 1950s, Prince Norodom Sihanouk encouraged the use of the terms Khmer Kandal (lowland majority) and Khmer Loeu (upland Khmer) to integrate minorities into the nation after centuries of slave-raiding and mutual suspicion. Many of those in minority areas are Khmer speakers and may refer to themselves as Khmer yoeung (‘we Khmer’), making distinctions vague. However, when the 2001 Land Law officially identified ‘indigenous peoples’ (chuncheat daom pheak tech), the notion gained legal currency and this dovetailed with the evolution of a global discourse on indigenous peoples’ land rights.
However, in Cambodia there are tight connections between high-ranking, politically well-connected officials and large business interests targeting tropical rain forest areas. This was extensively documented by Global Witness in 2007, who concluded that Cambodia is being run by a kleptocratic elite that generates much of its wealth by seizing public assets, particularly natural resources. China’s voracious appetite for luxury hardwood furniture is among the many incentives for the race among speculators to extract the huge, ancient trees that are the ecological backbone of these forests while some still remain. The Cambodian human rights organization Licadho reported in 2012 that in the past decade, almost 4 million hectares (around 22% of Cambodia’s land area) have been awarded to companies by the government as agro-industrial and mining concessions, thus legitimizing the exploitation of forested areas.
Some so-called reforestation projects are now being carried out in collaboration between the government and companies that profile themselves as “sustainable” and “eco-environmental”. However, these are largely transforming diverse landscapes into monoculture economic forests and the benefits accrue to the owners rather than to locals, whose livelihoods, which depend on the land, tend to be destroyed in the process. Large-scale industrial plantations continue to clear tropical rain forest areas, ironically in the name of sustainable development, while small-scale indigenous users of the forest, who protect its biodiversity, are becoming dispossessed.
The Cambodian Land Law of 2001 enshrined the right of indigenous peoples to apply for collective land titles. However, in practice, there are significant obstacles to acquiring them. In 2009, a sub-decree was issued that required communities to register as legal entities before they could apply for collective titles (Article 3). There are thus three formal steps to securing collective land: 1) the Ministry of Rural Development must recognise a community as ‘indigenous’, 2) the Ministry of Interior must then register the community as a legal entity and 3) the Ministry of Land Management and Urban Planning should then issue a collective land title. This grants considerable power to local officials to decide who qualifies as indigenous and, consequently, who is entitled to apply for collective title. As of 2016, of the 458 villages in which indigenous people are recorded as living (Ministry of Interior’s ‘List of Indigenous Peoples’ Areas 6 March 2009), only 11 had been able to complete the registration process. Corruption, lack of political will and problems with maintaining cohesion in communities have all been cited as forestalling the issuance of titles.
These forest communities are neither homogenous nor are they simply passive victims of powerful figures and companies. While some see benefit from capitalist production and modernity and shedding the stigma of backwardness and poverty, others fear finding themselves cast adrift with neither land nor social capital in a predatory consumerist world. The question of who then has the right to represent the community or make decisions about its future is complex and reflects the fragmentary experiences and ideas present in the groups engaged in these struggles.
In February 2016, it was announced that after twenty year of trying to assist the Cambodian Land Management Ministry on pro-poor land rights, Germany was pulling out because it had proven impossible to reach consensus with the Cambodian government on major issues, particularly concerning transparency. Canada, Denmark, Finland and the World Bank had already quit. Recognising that institutional tactics for influencing the government and companies are essentially futile, some indigenous communities have instead found violent protest to be a more effective way of making their voices heard. One Bunong community in Mondulkiri has been documented as successfully using violent resistance to gain significant concessions from the government and influence a rubber company to mitigate most of the adverse impacts on their community.
In May 2012, in the run up to the 2013 elections, the Royal Government of Cambodia declared a moratorium on the granting of ELCs and announced a review of existing ELCs. Soon after, Prime Minister Hun Sen issued Directive 01 – this was to see that over a million hectares of land would be withdrawn from ELC areas and awarded to families who claimed plots. Some 4,000 student volunteers were hurriedly dispatched to survey land and deliver titles to families free of charge.
However, Directive 01 contained no special provision for minorities claiming collective title. Families in Mondulkiri Province who had long been in dispute with rubber companies that were encroaching upon their ancestral lands now found themselves subject to students measuring up plots of their land for private titles. This had the effect of splitting the community into those who were willing to accept a private title and those who wanted to hold out in the hope of eventually receiving a collective title over a large area that would recognise sacred spirit forests and rotating farms instead of limiting ownership to the five hectares stipulated in the directive for private ownership.
NGOs continued to urge communities to hurry up and register for communal titles but some accepted a private title rather than risk ending up with no title at all if their land was to be grabbed before the tortuous registration process could be completed. Some local officials, perhaps themselves influenced by financial incentives from powerful figures, are reported to have threatened villagers that they would lose all their land if they did not accept the private titles.
While collective action by communities in the form of protests and acts of resistance have been gathering force in recent years – sometimes supported by monks with a strong, international reputation and online presence such as the Venerable Luon Sovath – outspoken individuals also run major risks. Cambodia is among the most dangerous countries in the world for grassroots human rights and environmental defenders. The environmental activist Chut Wutty was shot and killed in cold blood in 2012 (see Fran Lambrick’s documentary ‘I am Chut Wutty’). His was just one in a string of murders of Cambodian critics of the government. In July 2016, intellectual, political commentator and activist, Kem Ley was gunned to death as he sat drinking coffee at a petrol station in Phnom Penh. Since the corrupt judiciary largely ensures impunity for the powerful, those popularly believed to be behind this kind of assassination in Cambodia are not held accountable – just prior to his death Kem Ley had been vocal about a highly sensitive Global Witness report on the wealth accumulated by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family. The report had concluded that the family’s holdings span the country’s most lucrative sectors, including those characterised by high levels of corruption, human rights abuses and environmental damage.
The picture that emerges is that of a race by a powerful elite to capture the wealth remaining in the country’s rapidly diminishing natural resources, particularly ancient, biodiverse forests, before it is gone for ever. Resistance by the forest’s inhabitants, with their long traditions of practising small-scale rotating agriculture and respecting the powers of the land upon which all humanity depends, may be the last hope for these forests, which are of inestimable value for our common future.
The author would like to thank the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Foundation for sponsoring the research upon which this article is based.