I was on my way back to Phnom Penh after a week in the hilly and lush province of Mondulkiri in eastern Cambodia – famous for it’s rich assets of natural resources – when all of a sudden a roadblock appeared on the national road. It was a protest. A few hundred villagers, representing more than 2000 indigenous families, had gathered, and put a building resembling a traditional Cambodian house on the road, to protest against a company clearing their land, destroying their livelihood. One of the villagers, for the day an activist, told me that indigenous ‘Stiung’ and ‘Phnong’ people had used the land and the former wildlife sanctuary for their livelihood for a “very long time”, living of the land collecting non-timber forest products.
Another activist told me that this was the second time in a short period of time that they’d taken this kind of action. Last time it was performed at another location but the idea was the same. The first time it was for the same reason and the company promised not to clear any more land. However, no papers were signed, no thumbprints were collected.
Land concessions are a common and continuously topical problem in Cambodia, and indigenous people are often badly affected standing weak without legal documents against powerful economical interests. The process of registering land and getting proper and legally valid land titles can be a lengthy and complicated process. Previously the community had an official representative, e.g. for consultations, but due to threats and the risk of being arrested on arbitrary grounds resulted in that no one was up for the job. After a little more than three hours stuck under a big hard sun a solution was reached; lets hope a lasting one this time.
Even though I’m working with, and reading about, issues such as this one every day I’m still struck by the power of the people when it comes to acting.