- Indigenous peoples are effective custodians of biodiversity, lands, and seas, while sustaining distinct cultural, social and economic values of their communities.
- Upholding the legal land rights of these communities is therefore increasingly at the center of international climate and biodiversity commitments and agreements.
- “Strengthening Indigenous custodianship by expanding, reinforcing, and fully implementing these legal recognitions is essential for the protection of Cambodia’s forests, and would create further confidence among donors and carbon markets that customary rights are being upheld, enabling greater access to finance,” a new op-ed argues.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of Mongabay.
While Indigenous peoples comprise just 6% of the global population, they manage or have tenure rights over at least 38 million km2 in some 87 countries. In many places Indigenous peoples are effective custodians of biodiversity, lands, and seas while sustaining distinct cultural, social and economic values of their communities. Upholding the rights of these communities is therefore increasingly at the center of international climate and biodiversity commitments and agreements.
The Cambodian Government has one of the strongest legal frameworks on the protection of such rights within the Mekong region, uniquely recognizing the rights of Indigenous peoples to manage land collectively. The government should be proud of this and further its implementation. These titles protect community lands in perpetuity and provide specific protections for lands held in common, such as forests where rotational farming is practiced, and where the spirits of buried ancestors are said to reside.
But the process for obtaining these titles is burdensome and slow. This has left many Indigenous communities without certainty and security for many years. Of 458 Indigenous communities in Cambodia, only 40 have received titles. Strengthening Indigenous custodianship by expanding, reinforcing, and fully implementing these legal recognitions is essential for the protection of Cambodia’s forests, and would create further confidence among donors and carbon markets that customary rights are being upheld, enabling greater access to finance.
Take for example Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary (KSWS), which sits in eastern Cambodia, spanning Mondulkiri and Kratié provinces. This protected area boasts a total of 75 threatened species — the most in Cambodia — together with 350 bird species, seven primate species, including the critically endangered southern yellow cheeked crested gibbon, and a quarter of Cambodia’s remaining elephant population. It is also the ancestral home of the Bunong, Stieng, and other Indigenous peoples.
The sanctuary has had a turbulent history. Following forced displacements during the Khmer Rouge regime, and decades of civil war, the area was designated as a logging concession by the Cambodian government in the 1990s. During this period, many of the resin trees and other important resources of the Bunong, Stieng and other Indigenous peoples were cut down and taken out.
Following biodiversity surveys, the Cambodian government committed to the conservation of this area in 2002. In 2010, the site became the country’s second demonstration project for REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), requiring government and communities to work together for the protection of forests and wildlife, and made its first REDD+ carbon credit sales in 2016.
Prior to REDD+, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS, for which two of the authors work) supported the Bunong community of Andong Kralong, located in KSWS, to become the first to receive an Indigenous Collective Land Title in Cambodia, and the first in any protected area. Subsequently, and as part of the REDD+ process, WCS has supported another six communities in Keo Seima to receive communal titles—protecting a total of 2,552 hectares of forest, including many of the most important wildlife habitats.
A further nine communities in KSWS are currently registering communal lands. Some have been working on this for nearly 15 years. If the lands requested by these communities were titled, they would cover over 10,000 hectares, of which more than half is forested, thus contributing to their protection, and to the protection of the surrounding areas. In addition to supporting Indigenous and local communities to obtain legal title and rights to their lands, the REDD+ program has provided economic benefits, helped community self-determination in setting priorities, and is working towards the strengthening of customary regulations and cultural rights.
In the meantime, there is ongoing logging, as increasing numbers of people are migrating into Indigenous territories and encroaching on the forests, looking for cheap land to farm cashew and cassava. Predatory lending practices from banks and microfinance institutions with extremely high interest rates against land as collateral have also led many Indigenous communities to depend on deforestation or land sales to repay loans, including within the titled areas.
Unfortunately, even when communities do successfully navigate the titling process, the results can be unsatisfying. Sometimes, granted titles reflect only a fraction of the requested lands. Sub-Decree 83, which sets out the process for communities to register collective land titles, limits protections for spirit and burial forests to seven hectares each, which does not reflect their real extent, leaving many culturally and ecologically important forest areas unprotected. Although it is happening to a lesser extent than untitled lands, Indigenous lands are facing the challenge of deforestation due to powerful economic interests and outsiders. This is further compounded by high levels of indebtedness of many Indigenous families and a lack of basic services for Indigenous communities of KSWS.
Addressing these threats is possible. Supporting community land tenure has been a key strategy since it is an enabler for Indigenous peoples to further protect the core KSWS REDD+ area from deforestation. To have greater impact, the process for registering communal lands titles needs to be simplified, reformed, and fully implemented so that it respects and protects the rights and actual priorities of the Indigenous communities. Spirit forest and burial areas can be expanded based on their actual customary land used and managed.
The Cambodian Government is looking to pilot and complement this with actions like designating culturally important forest sites within the sanctuary, which would extend Indigenous rights within the park. Park rangers can better understand what provisional titles mean to promote respect for Indigenous community protections enshrined in law while the titling process is underway.
Expanding opportunities for culturally appropriate sustainable development is also necessary so the communities do not rely on high-interest loans and environmentally damaging practices. A program for restructuring and forgiving existing debts can make an impact. The buyers of agricultural products in the landscape, especially cashew nuts—a widely grown crop in the area—also need to ensure their activities are not jeopardizing Indigenous peoples’ rights.
It is equally important for government to safeguard Indigenous peoples’ rights through respecting the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent of Indigenous communities when it comes to large-scale infrastructure developments in KSWS. Recently, the Cambodian government suspended a proposed marble mine within the REDD+ area, a move that — if permanent — would be welcomed by both the Indigenous communities and conservationists.
Finally, Indigenous communities will need support and recognition from government to strengthen and revitalize their distinct cultures, traditions, social and economic strengths, and ability to shape their own futures. This will not only benefit the communities but also the state, as stronger Indigenous communities mean stronger protection of forests and biodiversity, cultural heritage, as well as more tourism revenue and international financing.
With commitment and support from governments at national, provincial, and local levels, this can be the foundation of a future where Indigenous communities and wildlife thrive together, while contributing to addressing the climate emergency across the globe.
Demonstrating this commitment and support to Indigenous peoples and local communities would create further confidence among donors and carbon markets that KSWS is committed to an inclusive approach that leaves no one behind. It would also enable greater access to both climate and biodiversity finance to further international commitments.
Sushil Raj is Executive Director of the Rights + Communities Global Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) while Emiel de Lange is Conservation Impact Technical Advisor at WCS Cambodia. Yun Mane is Executive Director at Cambodia Indigenous People’s Organization.
Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: A discussion of the importance of securing Indigenous & local communities’ land rights, and the global push for privatization that can deprive such people access to their territories, listen here:
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