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Time no longer on the side of indigenous Cambodians

Tribe's last-ditch attempt to halt rubber firms' relentless march

Time no longer on the side of indigenous Cambodians

The Jarai ethnic minority's way of life is being threatened as big business eats up their land.   

Abby Seiff, Phnom Penh

February 12, 2014

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It took centuries for Ruoy Chameas’ ancestors to establish the villages, traditions and livelihoods that underpin his daily existence, but it has only taken a handful of years to begin unraveling it all.

In just two years, Kum Nya, his village in Ratankkiri province has shrunk by half due to encroachment by a subsidiary of the powerful rubber concessionaire Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL).

“The company took almost half the [farm] land and all of the natural forest,” says Chameas, who is a member of the Jarai ethnic minority. “It is very difficult to earn a living right now.”

Rapid development has impacted villages across Cambodia, but for years, the remote reaches in the northeast of the country remained relatively untrammeled.

For ethnic minorities like the Jarai, who farm communally, employ traditional cultivation methods and rely on the forest for subsistence hunting and gathering, the relative isolation has allowed their culture to survive.

Complex relations with ancestral spirits and elaborate rituals have been cemented by tight-knit villages that hew to matrilineal lines and ensure traditions are passed on from one generation to another.

The villages have also permitted Christianity to flourish. More than 40 percent of Jarai villages in Ratanakkiri have at least one church, according to a report by International Cooperation Cambodia.

It is not uncommon for Jarai families to count numerous Christians among them. Chameas, for instance, has several Christian sisters and relatives. But increasingly, their way of life is under threat.

As the global supply of rubber rapidly threatens to be outpaced by demand, rubber companies have set their sights in recent years on Cambodia.

With little development, large forests and easy access to Vietnam, Ratanakkiri has become an especially choice locale, allowing companies and local officials the added benefit of access to ample stocks of luxury wood during the clearance stage.

The company that has begun taking over Chameas’s land is one of the biggest beneficiaries. All told, HAGL owns more than 47,000 hectares – an area equal to 5 percent of Ratanakkiri, according to Global Witness.

As encroachment continues unabated, and with official complaints falling on deaf ears, Chameas and representatives from 16 other villages have resorted to a complicated, last-ditch tactic.

Slightly more than 5 percent of HAGL is owned by Vietnam-based investor Dragon Capital, which, in turn, was over four years partially funded by International Finance Corporation (IFC) – the financing arm of the World Bank.

On Monday, with the aid of several NGOs, the group submitted a 35-page complaint to the IFC’s Office of the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman, alleging that it failed to exercise “due diligence commensurate to the high risk level”.

According to the complaint, villagers have seen a “severe” impact on their ability to survive. With limited access to the forests and fields, many struggle to adequately feed themselves and their families. Some children, “including some under the age of 10”, have been forced to stop school in order to help their families make ends meet.

“Losses have affected some communities’ ability to conduct ceremonies, including those that facilitate intra-community dispute resolution, and this in turn affects community cohesion,” the complaint continues.

Representatives of the 17 communities gathered in Phnom Penh – the first time many of them had made the daylong trip – to detail the impacts the plantations have had on their lives.

“The government says this is development and it is cutting down on poverty, but actually, they are destroying the lives and traditions of indigenous minorities,” said Siev Beun, an elderly indigenous Kachok, speaking through a local translator.

“My burial grounds, my community forests, my fields have been almost completely cleared. The company tried to force me to leave my village but I refused because my traditions are so rich there. But it is difficult – before I used to work in the fields, now I cannot any more.”

For Chameas, the thought of leaving his village is similarly unimaginable. The father of eight children ranging from two to 19, Chameas says neither he nor his children would understand how to live elsewhere.

“Minority families always live together in the village, with their whole family. It’s our tradition,” he said.

“We do not understand the cash economy. We only know how to work our fields. If no solution can be found after the complaint, what can we do? We will just be waiting to die.”

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