Cambodia: Can we protect the traditional land of indigenous communities?

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At the pace of development of Cambodia's economy, the pressure on these indigenous communities has grown quickly.
Last week, I joined a government team traveling to Mondulkiri, a little known province located some 500 km northeast of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This was a long trip not only because of the distance, but also because of the quality of the road during the last couple of hours of the journey (although that will change quickly, as the road is being rehabilitated).

The province is really beautiful, with the road traveling first through a dense jungle and then arriving on more open hilly plateaus. The province has some very nice landscapes, as well as powerful waterfalls such as Boo Sra (see picture). We stayed in the provincial capital, Sen Monorum (which in Khmer means very enjoyable!), at one of the few hotels in the city. The whole province is very sparsely populated, with about two habitants per square kilometer.

Mondulkiri is one of the provinces with the highest proportion of minority groups (in fact "minority groups" are a majority of the population). Cambodia is overall a rather homogenous country, certainly compared to the countries in South Asia where I used to work. But there are a number of hill tribes, particularly in Mondulkiri. The main community is a group called Phnong.

Boo Sra waterfalls in Mondulkiri, a little known province located some 500 km northeast of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
As in other countries, the situation of minority ethnic groups has been very challenging and Cambodia’s complex history is no exception. At the pace of development of this economy, the pressure on these communities – on their land, their tradition, their livelihood – has been growing very fast. Over the last few years, the government has had a small number of pilots to demarcate and protect the traditional land of these communities (which falls under a special category as it needs collective ownership by the community). I have been part of a team discussing how to accelerate these protective measures. And just as the situation is extremely complex, how to do that is also proving challenging.

Some questions we have to ask include: What if some members of the community want to opt out of such collective ownership? How to apply titling (which assumes you demarcate a finite piece of land) in a context of nomadic practices (which assumes that you can move to different pieces of land)? As a friend and researcher reminded me recently (thanks Sophal), there are examples from other countries where an apparently simple agreement generated significant misunderstandings. More information on these issues in Cambodia can be found at this site.

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