Indigenous People Rights Project

Under the Indigenous Peoples Land Rights project, NGO Forum supports NGOs working together to secure indigenous peoples’ land and protect their communities by preventing or mitigating the negative impacts of economic land concessions (ELCs). In particular, NGOs promote proper consultation before granting of projects such as ELCs, following the principle of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC).

The project encourages active engagement of NGOs, affected communities, development partners and government in policy consultation and dialogue on reform of the legal framework related to indigenous peoples’ land and ELCs, ensuring that gender equality is respected. Advocacy work and policy dialogue is supported by evidence-based research and investigation.

NGOs cooperate to ensure that the concerns of indigenous communities affected by ELCs are brought to the attention of the Cambodian government and the international community.

The project works closely with the Indigenous Peoples and Forestry Network (IPFN) and Indigenous Rights Active Members (IRAM).

Indigenous Peoples in Cambodia

Indigenous minorities in Cambodia are estimated to constitute 190,000 people – equivalent to 1.4% of the total population. They have traditionally managed nearly 4 million hectares of remote evergreen and dry deciduous forests. The long-term wellbeing of indigenous cultures is strongly linked to their land use systems and access to forest resources.

Indigenous peoples in Southeast Asia have often been marginalized. Due to inequitable development processes and poor governance, Cambodia’s recent economic growth has led to significant loss of land and access to natural resources for indigenous communities, while bringing them only very limited benefits. Economic land concessions, mining concessions and hydropower dams, land grabbing, deforestation and illegal logging have together severely impacted on their livelihoods. With the loss of spirit and sacred forces, people have lost their identity and their culture.

Economic land concessions are a threat to communities

ELCs are seen as the biggest threat to the livelihoods of indigenous communities.
According to the latest information from the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, from 1996 until August 2013 the government – namely MAFF and MOE – had granted a total area of 1.5 million hectares of ELCs to 117 companies.

According to the latest data from human rights organization LICADHO, ELCs covered 2,289,490 ha by April 2013, which is equivalent to 63.46 % percent of Cambodia’s arable land. In addition, 2,027,979 hectares of mining concessions have been recorded. Thus, according to LICADHO, mining and economic land concessions together cover 4,317,469 hectares or 24.46 percent of Cambodia’s surface area.

This has created conflicts with communities, in particular those of indigenous peoples. Reports indicate that a much larger area of their land is currently illegally occupied by concessions. The ELCs negatively impact on human rights and livelihoods in rural communities through:

  • Encroachment on agricultural and grazing land and subsequent displacement, loss of livelihood and access to food

  • encroachment on forested areas and loss of access to non-timber forest products
  • impact on areas of cultural and spiritual significance (concessions have been granted on burial and spirit forest areas).

Many concessions operate illegally because they do not comply with existing national laws. For example, affected communities are not consulted during the planning phase, information is not publicly disclosed for review and the concession areas often extend over the limit of 10 000 hectares.
Around 40,000 hectares are threatened with logging and change of use to a rubber plantation in the Virachey National Park, a protected area and home to the majority of indigenous communities in the province of Ratanakiri. This is not an isolated case – there is a trend of growing vulnerability of indigenous communities and their traditional livelihoods.

In May 2012, the Royal Government of Cambodia declared a moratorium on the granting of ELCs and announced a review of existing ELCs.

Existing laws are not helping or are not enforced

The 2001 Land Law, the 2002 Forestry Law and other legislation such as the Cambodian Constitution provide for indigenous communities to gain collective title to their land and to maintain user rights to traditionally owned forest resources. However, these structures are not adequately protecting or promoting their rights.

The Sub-decree on Procedures of Registration of Land of Indigenous Communities that requires implementation of collective title to indigenous communities was approved in June 2009, but progress of registration of communal land has been slow.

Until August 2013, only 8 collective titles have been officially issued for indigenous communities, 2 in Ratanakiri and 5 in Mondulkiri.  It is for this reason that strong interim protection measures need to be set in place to protect alienation of indigenous peoples from their land while the registration proceeds.

Slow progress is partly due to the complicated nature of registration:

  • The Ministry of Rural Development must recognize the identification of an indigenous people and community
  • the Ministry of Interior must register the community as a legal entity
  • the Ministry of Land Management and Urban Planning then carries out a collective land titling procedure.

All three steps require documentation to be drafted.

There is another challenge too: the Royal Government of Cambodia’s willingness to implement relevant laws related to ELCs, to prioritize the protection of its indigenous population and to push for speeding up the registration process, seems limited.

This was illustrated by the cancellation of Joint Monitoring Indicators proposed on indigenous land security and interim protective measures in 2010. Even though this was strongly criticized by CSOs and NGOs, they have not been reinstalled.

In May 2011, MLMUPC and MoI issued an inter-ministerial circular on Interim Protective Measures (IPMs) of Indigenous Peoples’ Lands that Has Been Requested for Collective Ownership Titling, while Awaiting Titling Process According to Procedures to be Completed.  The impact of this Circular is expected to be low since it excludes “[…] plots that the Royal Government of Cambodia has agreed in principle for investment or development – prior to these measures come into effect; […]” meaning areas already targeted for Economic Land Concessions.

The conclusion of a 2007 UN study is still valid: “The alienation of indigenous land through the granting of ELCs and other concessions is undermining the ability of indigenous communities to register their collective ownership of traditional lands, and enforce their rights to land under the Land Law. In the face of continuing alienation of land in indigenous areas, there is increasing concern that little land will remain available for registration once the framework is finalized.”

Project background

In 2003, several NGOs working on indigenous people’s issues related to land and forests began to have informal working group meetings. In September 2004, The Indigenous Minorities’ Rights (IMR) Project set up the Indigenous Peoples’ NGOs Network (IPNN). IMR coordinated the IPNN network members, strengthening IPNN and representing the network at national and international levels.

Between 2004 and 2008, the project expanded to focus on activities such as coordinating a series of workshops with indigenous community representatives in selected provinces in collaboration with the network. This culminated in a National Indigenous Peoples’ Forum in September 2004, which led to the initiation of the indigenous communities’ network, called Indigenous Rights Active Members (IRAM).  This group has operated since 2005 and became nationally and internationally recognized due to its advocacy activities.

The Indigenous Minorities’ Rights project supported IRAM to host the Asia Caucus meeting of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), and they joined the UNPFII in 2007 and 2008 in New York. In 2007, IRAM agreed to select seven core members to lead the IRAM activities coordination.

During the 2009–2011 action plan, IMR worked to secure indigenous peoples’ rights to land and natural resources by accelerating collective land registration and advocate for their rights, using the mechanism of IPNN and IRAM. In 2013 the project focuses on two main issues threatening the acess to land for Indigenous Peoples by addressing issues concerning negative social, economic and environmental impacts of ELCs and mining concessions and the lack of implementation and enforcement of the legal framework protecting indigenous peoples.

In 2012, the Indigenous Peoples and Forestry Network (IPFN) was established as a result of merging two networks, the Forest Livelihoods and Plantations Network (FL&PN) and the Indigenous People’ NGOs Network (IPNN), following recommendations from the final evaluation 2011. IPFN is a network of NGOs being members of the NGO Forum on Cambodia (NGOF). In this regard, the IMR project has also changed to Indigenous Peoples Land Rights Project, which is working to facilitate and coordinate IPFN members to achieve the project’s goal by delivering these outputs:

  • NGOs, affected communities, DPs, and government are actively engaged in policy consultation and dialogue promoting favourable reforms of the legal framework related to IP land and ELCs, ensuring gender equality respected.
  • Local and international NGOs working on IP land and ELCs issues are well organized, strengthened and empowered to ensure an effective advocacy strategy benefitting the affected communities.
  • NGOs cooperate to ensure that the concerns of IP and communities affected by development projects such as ELCs are brought to the attention of the Cambodian government and international community’s aiming to secure indigenous peoples’ land by an effective advocacy strategy.
  • Advocacy work and policy dialogue on IP issues and development projects such as ELCs is supported by evidence-based research, investigation including gender sensitivity.
  • NGOs cooperate to ensure proper consultation before granting of development projects such as ELCs by promoting the principle of FPIC.

Indigenous People’s Land and Rights video