Indigenous people fighting for their culture in Cambodia

Date of publication: 
31 August 2015

by Alex Blair, a former press officer for Oxfam America’s Extractive Industries team.

Gold mining threatens rights and livelihoods of local communities.

In the far northeast of Cambodia, the forest is disappearing. On my first visit there, I expected to see thick, dense forests everywhere. Instead, most of the land has been cleared for large rubber and cassava plantations. The remaining forests are central to the daily lives of the local people, their livelihoods and culture. But foreign mining companies are failing to respect the rights of local communities, with important implications especially for indigenous people and their land.

The oil, gas, and mining sector is growing in Cambodia, but without clear planning and decision making. There is no clear Social and Environmental Impact Assessment (SEIA) process or zoning rules. There is a lack of transparency, proper management and monitoring of concessions, and limited civil society space. The limited regulations means there is a high potential for negative social and environmental impacts, particularly in areas where indigenous people live and where communities lack the resources or capacity to engage with companies or the government.

In the northeastern province of Ratanakiri, gold mining, large-scale agriculture, and timber companies are rushing in. But most of the land granted to the companies previously belonged to the communities. Because of traditional practices of land ownership, these communities lacked formal titles on the land that prevented the companies from gaining legal concessions. The Highlander Association, one of Oxfam America’s local partners in the region, is working to empower indigenous people and help them control their access to their land.

Chanthy Dam, the founder of the Highlanders Association, told me, “We don’t want to see any indigenous people become slaves to the company, lose our tradition and culture, and lose their land.” But mining companies exploring for gold often fail to properly consult with communities and as a result indigenous people face unintended negative consequences from exploration activities. Chanty says indigenous people’s relationship with their natural resources, their traditional agriculture, and their livelihoods (forest products like lumber are a major source of income for the local villages) are all threatened when a company moves in and begins cutting down trees and leaving behind chemical waste.

Tak Chrat, from the village of Ka Tieng, says a mining company called Mesco Gold set up operations in the forest without properly consulting with affected communities. “I wonder why a mining company came to our village and occupied our land without asking us,” he said. When companies fail to properly consult communities, it can lead to rights violations and conflict. We visited a mining exploration site in the forest, with loud construction and a pool of mine waste called tailings. The nearby villagers told me they had never been consulted by the company before it started operations in their sacred forest.

Oxfam and its partners like Highlanders Association are working in Cambodia to improve consultation processes and SEIAs, so that communities are able to exercise their rights and make sure the companies hear their voices. Our priorities are:

For people to be empowered with access to information, an understanding of their rights, and the capacity to negotiate with companies; For the government to improve its policy and offer spaces to affected people to voice their concerns; and For all stakeholders—government, companies, and communities—to understand and mitigate the potential social and environmental consequences of mining.

Chanthy says that most of the land granted to the companies belonged to the communities. One rubber plantation (large-scale plantations of rubber, cassava, and other crops also dominate the landscape of Ratanakiri) of Hon Ang covers almost all of one ethnic minority group’s lands. There have been more than 1,300 complaints to the company that owns Hon Ang from ethnic minority groups.

Chanty says her goals are simple: She wants indigenous groups to keep their traditions and culture, and be able to stay in their villages and manage their land sustainably; and she wants the next generation to have the knowledge and skills to secure ownership of their land. She and the Highlanders Association are also working to address the gender-specific impacts of mining. She says there is cultural pressure on women in indigenous groups: They aren’t allowed by their husbands to participate in meetings. “But now there is a change in this phenomenon—women are entitled to participate in decision making and training,” she says.

Indigenous groups in Cambodia are often most affected by a country that is changing rapidly, but groups like Oxfam’s partner the Highlanders Association are helping them to defend their rights. Chanty seems hopeful as she tells me, “Helping the indigenous people is my main goal in my life.”