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Incredible beauty, vulnerability in Ratanakiri

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San Lap grows rice in her village Lalai, in Ratanakiri, Cambodia. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America
Sap Lan grows rice in her village Lalai, in Ratanakiri, Cambodia. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America

In Cambodia’s northern-most province of Ratanakiri, Sap Lan shows visitors her rice field. The indigenous Kavet woman says that normally by this time of September the plants are up to her waist. Late rainfall this year means her rice plants barely reach her ankle. She is counting on harvesting wild fruits and vegetables from the surrounding forest for food and to earn money to buy rice.

Indigenous people in this province like Sap Lan depend heavily on nature, especially rain and forest resources.  Their community forest is thick with huge, magnificent trees, some as wide as five people joining hands in a circle. They soar into the sky. It is dark in the late afternoon in the woods, and when you break out into the rich light of the rice field, the bright green shocks your eyes.

There are 11 people in 29-year-old Lap’s extended family; all living in one small house near their 2.5-acre rice field. Last year they made up for a dry growing season and a shortfall in rice production by gathering the fruit from samrong trees. In some places people can pay $10 for a kilo of samrong fruit. The family earned enough to buy a motorcycle and fix up their house.

The struggle for survival here may become even more challenging: The family is hearing that a mining company is exploring for minerals in the area and that the company has a 20,500-acre concession from the government, granted without consultation or permission from the local people in the village of Lalai, on the edge of a large stream flowing into the Se San river, a tributary of the mighty Mekong.

“If a mine comes here, it will affect Lalai, and the pigs and cows I raise, and we won’t have land to live on,” one man in the village tells us.

Farmers grow corn and vegetables on small fields in the forest and are accustomed to rotating their fields every few years. They need enough land to continue this traditional approach to agriculture.

Lalai and the mining concession are inside a Protected Forest near the Virachey National Park, a nature preserve. Mining would not only displace the indigenous Kavet people living here, but also affect the spectacular natural resources in the forest.

Indigenous communities in Ratanakiri including the Kavet may be deprived of their agricultural land, and the forest on which they depend for their survival. This has been their home for centuries.

Chanthy Dam, a human rights defender in her 50s, runs a non-profit advocacy group called the Highlander Association that works with the minority hill peoples here and helps them understand their rights, and defend their land and natural resources.

“Cambodia’s 2001 Land Law protects the rights of indigenous people to sustainably harvest forest products and live on their ancestral lands,” she says sitting next to Lalai’s village chief. “They have the right to manage their lands.

“And no authority has the right to take away the ancestral lands of indigenous people.”

Indigenous women such as Chanthy are taking the lead in the defense of their rights and the protection of indigenous culture and the environment.

Cambodia doesn’t have a shortage of laws to protect the rights of indigenous minorities. In addition to the land law, Cambodia is a signatory to a number of international instruments that protect the rights of indigenous peoples. This includes the UN International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), UN International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).  Cambodia is also a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity (1992) that recognizes the role of indigenous peoples in the protection of biodiversity.

Chanthy Dam (left) in Lalai. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America.
Chanthy Dam (left) in Lalai. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America.

Chanthy continues organizing villagers, training them in their basic rights to defend their communal lands. We’ll be writing more about her in the coming weeks and months.

“We are not hopeless,” she says. “There are ways of protecting our way of life.”

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