Facing threats and intimidation, indigenous communities in Cambodia defend natural resources

By Mong Vichet

In the northeastern province of Ratanakiri in Cambodia, the Highlanders Association supports indigenous communities in their struggle to protect vital natural resources — the land, rivers, and forests that have been inextricably linked to the lives and collective identities of indigenous communities for centuries. Development in this corner of country often comes in the form of land concessions for rubber plantations, mines, dams, and logging, funded by private companies and development banks.

Development, as it is currently done in my country, threatens indigenous peoples’ traditional way life. In Cambodia, there are huge human rights threats to the territories of indigenous communities, because the Government of Cambodia has granted economic land concessions to foreign companies for the agro-industry, such as rubber plantations, and mining exploration. Additionally, indigenous communities face threats from hydropower projects.

Highlanders Association and four other Cambodia civil society groups are supporting 17 communities affected by a development project involving rubber plantations. That project is financed by the International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank. We trained communities on their rights under Cambodia’s Land Law, as well as community organizing and negotiation skills, and we supported communities in filing a complaint to the accountability mechanism.

In 2015, the Cambodian Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO) was passed, despite widespread national and international criticism. This has made it very hard for people to mobilize as groups or meet to discuss their concerns. I believe these limitations on civil society groups will only increase. Another reason it will increase is that we are nearing the sub-national elections in 2017 and also the national election will be held in 2018.

Indigenous communities face many obstacles defending their lands from development projects. One challenge is information. The government and the companies have never properly consulted with our communities for any of their development projects. They do not comply with the international principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent found in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. They do not disclose all relevant information related to their project development impacts, such as the master plan, company profile, and the environmental impact assessment. The government just informs us about their projects after they decided to work in our territories.

Unfortunately, the current situation in Cambodia is becoming worse and worse, making it more difficult for indigenous communities to defend their rights. At the country level, human rights activists have been arrested and jailed for activities related to human rights. There have been more and more limitations on peaceful protests. This means that there is a very limited space for civil society to work with indigenous communities on the ground, because local authorities require that we ask permission from the provincial government to conduct our activities.

Indigenous community activists have been threatened and intimidated by local authorities while they conducted trainings or workshops related to human rights. In the last few months, local police have come to investigate and observe us when we conducted meetings or trainings with indigenous communities. At the end of the meeting, the police asked for a report from our colleagues and whether we received permission from the provincial government.

This is not the first time we have been threatened because of our works supporting indigenous communities. Since 2004, we have been threatened by local authorities. In 2005, there was an attempt to kill Mrs. Dam Chanthy, the Executive Director of Highlander Association.

There have been other threats made since then. I was arrested in 2006 for supporting and providing a camera to the committee of a forest community so that they could patrol activity within their forest. When police tried to arrest me, I called on the communities. Luckily, many people came to support me. Then the Parliament Member asked his police to release me, as he saw that many people came to support me.

We observe that the relationship between civil society and government has worsened because the government has increasingly intimidated or arrested people from NGOs whose main purpose is to educate communities about their rights and who support peaceful demonstration related to development projects.

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