Dam Chanthy says things have changed a lot in her native Ratanakiri province. Rubber trees, standing in silent, unnaturally symmetrical rows across valleys and over the hills, cover what used to be ancient forests of exotic hardwoods. “The forest was very dense,” Chanthy, as everyone here calls her, says. “There was only the forest, the trees. The only exception was a few rice paddies, but if you wanted to clear the land and plant rice, you would clear the underbrush, and leave the big trees.”
The lands she sees now are completely different from when she grew up in a remote village. Roads now crisscross the province, but when she was younger Chanthy says “there were very few people here, and it was very far from village to village, walking was our only means of transportation. I only saw a [motorized vehicle] for the first time when the Khmer Rouge soldiers came to take us to work on a farm. I was probably 19 or 20 years old.”
In the 1960s and ‘70s Ratanakiri was a remote, wild province. In her forest home, Chanthy says “we would see wild boar, deer, and sometimes tigers would come at night and try to eat our chickens. We would never dare walk in the forest alone, and we would only go to gather firewood near our home.”
These days the lands and forests of Ratanakiri are in high demand. Mines, rubber plantations, and logging interests are driving the boom, and indigenous people like Chanthy are caught in the middle. Indigenous people are accustomed to rotating their fields, and therefore need wide areas. Land pressures are a direct threat to their livelihood.
Compounding the problems for indigenous people are shady land deals, and an unclear legal regime. Land and investment laws contradict each other, and many indigenous villagers are unaware of their rights to a special provision called a Communal Land Title (CLT) under the 2001 Land Law. Chanthy and her Highlander Association are working to educate indigenous leaders about these important rights at a time when government agencies are promoting individual land titles that allow investors with money and powerful political connections to pick off impoverished smallholders in need of cash.
“I spend time in communities telling people about the value of Communal Land Title, that it is a better way to protect their lands for growing crops – no companies can take away our communal land,” she says. “If you sell the land, you will spend the money in a few years, but if you keep communal land you will benefit for generations.”
“Land is life”
Oxfam is working with the Highlander Association and others in Ratanakiri to help indigenous people secure Communal Land Title, a process that can take years and require intense work to unify impoverished, remote communities.
I spent two days talking with community leaders in different stages of the process. We found a village of ethnic Tumpoun people called La In that recently acquired Communal Land Title for 1,218 hectares with the help of our partner Development Partnerships in Action. The CLT will help them protect their agricultural fields, burial areas, and their valuable and sacred “spirit forest.” They can preserve large areas for hunting and gathering wood, wild fruits, and other things they can eat and sell. “If we just registered for individual land titles, we would not get such areas designated for us by the authorities,” says Nun Chrong, a community organizer in La In. “They would never grant them, they would just take them away.”
Chanthy and others are struggling hard in Ratanakiri to help the original people of this area to protect what has always been theirs. “Land is life for us,” she says simply.