The Indigenous World 2021: Cambodia
Cambodia is home to 24 different Indigenous Peoples, who speak mostly Mon-Khmer or Austronesian languages and constitute approx. 3% of the national population. With an estimated population of 250,000 to 400,000, they are not clearly disaggregated in national census data. The Indigenous territories include the forested plateaus and highlands of North-eastern Cambodia, approximately 25% of the national territory. Cambodia’s Indigenous Peoples continue to face discrimination and forced displacement from their lands, which is extinguishing them as distinct groups. These patterns are driven by ongoing state and transnational corporate ventures for resource extraction (mainly mining, timber and agribusiness), coupled with growing in-migration from other parts of the country. Cambodia voted to adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples without reservation in 2007, and has ratified the CERD, CEDAW and CRC but has still not ratified ILO Convention 169.
During its last Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2019, Cambodia accepted a recommendation to “Step up efforts in land matters, including through the effective and transparent implementation of measures to tackle land evictions and provide with fair compensation the victims of land grabbing, particularly indigenous people” and “Implement a coherent resettlement policy and simplified process for granting communal land titles, consulting communities, civil society and indigenous groups”. However, this has so far not led to actual remedy to the discrimination and land insecurity Indigenous Peoples continued to face in 2020. The Indigenous Peoples’ rights movements continued to fight for their human rights; however, with deteriorating democratic freedoms and serious human rights violations, the ground on which the Indigenous rights movement exists has become more precarious. The repressive regime of Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has ruled the country since 1985, has persisted on a path of corruption, human rights abuses and non-democratic rule. In 2020, the government continued to target the independent media, civic organizations, NGOs, individuals exercising their civil and political rights and the opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was banned in 2017.
The overall consequences of the pandemic
While Cambodia has been spared the level of COVID-19 cases experienced in many other countries, the pandemic has severely affected the economy, educational opportunities and heightened the health risks for many Indigenous peoples. According to the Cambodia Indigenous Peoples’ Organization (CIPO), Indigenous communities have had extremely limited access to COVID-19 testing facilities, as testing has been restricted to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, both far from the rural highlands where most Indigenous Peoples reside, meaning that official COVID-19 statistics may not be accurate. Furthermore, the period was marked by a surge in illegal logging and land grabbing, which has caused widespread deforestation and insecurity among Indigenous communities.
According to the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights, 2020 in general was marked by shrinking civic space and continued political tensions across the globe. During the pandemic, restrictions on peaceful political activity and voices critical of the government intensified. Critics and political opponents continued to be targeted by repressive measures, including arbitrary detention and apparent misuse of criminal laws. At least 140 persons associated with the CNRP were arrested, charged with plotting against the state, incitement to commit a felony, and discrediting judicial decisions. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), received numerous reports of acts of intimidation against civil society and human rights organizations throughout 2020. These reports raised serious human rights concerns as the authorities were failing to adhere to national laws and to international human rights law on arrest, due process and the deprivation of liberty. OHCHR documented 46 instances in which the activities of human rights and civil society organizations had been subjected to undue interference, restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, intimidation, or harassment by authorities in the context of COVID-19.
In April, the government approved legislation authorizing a state of emergency in response to the pandemic. Drafted without public consultation, it empowers the government to declare a state of emergency for up to three months, which can be extended without review. It also allows for restrictions on – inter alia – the exercise of freedoms of movement and assembly, the right to obtain information, the right to privacy and the right to work. CIPO fears that the government will use the legislation to further restrict and abuse human rights. The law has furthermore been criticized as it risks silencing free speech and criminalizing peaceful assembly, and because of concerns as to the expedited enactment of the law and its substance, as well as insufficient review and oversight.
COVID-19 effects on Indigenous communities
According to CIPO, the pandemic has severely affected the local economy of many Indigenous Peoples. Although the government handed out cash to approx. 670,000 poor and vulnerable families, the aid rarely reached Indigenous communities. Additionally, Indigenous communities have had problems selling their crops as access to local markets has been restricted and prices for e.g. cashew nut and cassava have fallen to nearly half their regular price. At the community level, the majority of Indigenous Peoples have not been able to protect themselves from COVID-19, as many are unable to afford masks and sanitizer or to meet the expense of hospital treatment. In response, some communities have protected their community members, based on traditional Indigenous regulations, by blocking outsiders from entering their villages.
The closure of schools in March and the implementation of e-learning wedged a greater gap of inequality between wealthy and poor students., Numerous Indigenous youth have been unable to attend school as many rural and Indigenous families do not have access to the Internet or their own devices for accessing e-learning, which has resulted in many Indigenous students dropping out of school during the pandemic.
COVID-19 information was mostly shared by the government through Facebook and so access to news for many Indigenous communities was limited. In some Indigenous villages, the local authorities circulated information through speakers on vehicles, on occasion in a selection of Indigenous languages. However, as there is no infrastructure in place for the government to share information effectively, detailed information about COVID-19 has far from reached all Indigenous communities.
Land registration in Mondulkiri province
In 2020, the government initiated the Land Allocation for Social and Economic Development Project (LASED) in Mondulkiri province, financed by the World Bank. LASED is being promoted to “improve land tenure security and access to infrastructure and agricultural and social services for landless and poor smallholders and indigenous communities” with the aim of registering all state land. The project has been strongly criticized by IPs for being rushed through by the authorities with inadequate Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) and, as a result, civil society organizations, communities and village authorities have not had time to organize or prepare resources for participation. There have furthermore been reports of authorities pushing the communities to apply for individual rather than collective land titles, resulting in conflict among community members. The authorities involved have little experience of the local context and Indigenous communities were repeatedly met with the view that they “were demanding too much land”, thus disregarding essential parts of Indigenous cultures such as spiritual mountains, forests and burial grounds. A letter of complaint has been sent to the World Bank, wherein CIPO urges the World Bank and the authorities to respect FPIC and consult with IPs when initiating land demarcation. So far they have received no response. CIPO stressed how difficult and protracted the process is to gain community land titles for Indigenous Peoples and the LASED has so far not simplified the process. Meanwhile, the procurement of land by large-scale businesses is less complicated, which CIPO describes as the result of corruption among Cambodian politicians, the military and the police.
Forest crimes under the cover of the pandemic
Cambodia’s government has strenuously promoted long-term leasing of forested land as Economic Land Concessions (ELCs) under the 2001 Land Law in order to attract agroindustrial investors and development. However, ELCs have resulted in few benefits but huge social and environmental impacts. ELCs are not allowed to exceed 10,000 ha, but this provision has been regularly violated; companies have been known to create multiple entities or proxy companies that are then granted their own 10,000 ha plots, thus enabling one company to occupy far more land than allowed. Furthermore, at least 15 companies, all of which are owned by tycoons and CPP senators, have been granted more than 10,000 ha—far exceeding the amount permitted. A growing segment of Cambodia’s Indigenous population has become landless and pushed below the poverty line as a result of systematic land grabbing and forced evictions while the country’s natural resources—particularly its forests—are being destroyed or depleted at an unprecedented scale and pace.
Despite the government-imposed lockdowns, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated illegal logging and land grabbing in many of Cambodia’s protected forests., According to satellite data from the Global Land Analysis at the University of Maryland, 1,403,414 forest loss alerts were registered in 2020 affecting approx. 105,000 ha, of which more than half were registered within protected areas.
Within the Keo Saima Wildlife Sanctuary in Mondulkiri, the ancestral home of the Indigenous Bunong people, exploitative agro-businesses and illegal loggers have ravaged large areas of the protected forest under cover of the pandemic.15 Similarly, within Phnom Samkos and Botum Sakor in the Cardamom mountains, a surge in illegal deforestation surfaced during the pandemic. Within the Phnom Nam Lear Wildlife Sanctuary, in Mondulkiri, the Bunong community - who depend on the land for their livelihood and traditional lifestyle - filed a complaint against the local authorities for illegally clearing the protected forest. Correspondingly, a complaint is being prepared by another Bunong community against a military officer for illegally clearing a large area inside the same protected sanctuary. The destruction of forests is emerging as a deeply-rooted systemic problem of corruption, with few international environmental stakeholders taking action against the devastating development.
In March, in Ratanakiri province, 12 Indigenous communities were awaiting official ratification of the return of (a fragment of) their ancestral land by the Ministry of Agriculture, following a protracted land dispute with agro-industrial giant Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL). HAGL was required by the government to return 742 ha of its 50,566 ha concession (a concession equivalent to five times the legal limit) but, instead of returning the forest to the Indigenous communities, it was completely cleared. Satellite images and photos from the ground portray a burned wasteland of dirt and tree stumps. As a consequence, old-growth forest, two spirit mountains, wetlands, hunting areas and burial grounds have all been destroyed, causing immense harm to land of priceless spiritual value to the communities.
Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary
In February, armed officials deployed by the Ministry of Environment (MoE) blocked hundreds of community members, monks and environmental activists from entering the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary to join their annual tree-blessing ceremony. The ceremony, which combines Buddhist spirituality with the traditions of the Kuy Indigenous People, is held to raise awareness of illegal logging and to pray for the future of the forest. The Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN), which organized the ceremony, is an established activist group that monitors illegal logging. It has been working since 2000 to defend Indigenous land rights and to protect the forest. According to the MoE, the tree-blessing ceremony was prohibited because PLCN is not registered with the Ministry of Interior  in relation to the Law on Associations and NGOs (LANGO). Despite past assurances from the Ministry of Interior that LANGO would not be used to hinder the activities of grassroots groups, the law is being used as a justification to prohibit the legitimate conservation activities of the PLCN. Moreover, the MoE declared that PLCN did not have permission to enter the forest, referring to Article 11 of the Protected Areas Law which prohibits any person’s entry into a protected area without permission. However, Article 11 refers to areas that have been zoned, and states that only the most protected of four types of zone—the “core zone”—requires permission to enter. While Prey Lang was labelled a Protected Area in 2016, the forest has not yet been zoned, however, despite encouragement from conservation groups.
Following the ceremony ban, MoE furthermore banned PLCN from patrolling the forest on a daily basis. MoE has warned that it will take legal action against members of the PLCN if they continue to patrol or collect data, thus prohibiting the documentation of forest crimes. Meanwhile, the ban has provided the opportunity for criminals, and especially companies, to log and transport timber from protected areas with impunity. This has resulted in a dramatic increase in logging inside the protected forest, according to Global Forest Watch.
Two companies in particular – Think Biotech and Angkor Plywood are seen by PLCN as the biggest immediate threat to the Prey Lang forest. Clusters of recent deforestation are particularly found around the Think Biotech concession. Both companies are politically connected companies who have continued to operate during the COVID-19 outbreak. Corruption within the official forest sector is widespread, with illegal logging frequently linked to the military, police or the Ministry of Environment, thus making it extremely difficult to untangle. Large parts of the concession used to be covered by natural forest but this has now been replaced by plantations, with huge costs to biodiversity, river pollution and the local Indigenous Kuy populations.
This article was produced by the Cambodia Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance (CIPA). CIPA is an alliance of Indigenous communities and peoples’ organizations, associations and networks.
Katrine Gro Friborg is a researcher working on Indigenous knowledge, deforestation, food security and ethnobotanical relations.
This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here
Notes and references
 UNCHR. “Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination reviews report of Cambodia, asks about nationality, land grabs and civic space.” 29 November 2019. Accessed on 29 January 2021. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25372&LangID=E
 Cambodia Indigenous Peoples’ Organization (CHRO). “Indigenous Peoples Data.” Accessed on 29 January 2021.
 Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). “Concluding observations on the combined fourteenth to seventeenth reports of Cambodia.” 12 December 2019. Accessed on 29 January.
 International Labour Organization (ILO): “Up-to-date Conventions and Protocols not ratified by Cambodia.” Accessed on 29 January 2021. https://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=1000:11210:0::NO:11210:P11210_COUNTRY_ID:103055
 UN General Assembly. Human Rights Council, Forty-fifth session, 14 September–2 October 2020. Agenda items 2 and 10. Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General. “Role and achievements of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in assisting the Government and people of Cambodia in the promotion and protection of human rights. Report of the Secretary-General.” Accessed on 29 January 2021. Https://cambodia.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Ohchr-report/Annual%20Report%20of%20OHCHR%202020%20(EN).pdf
 Kunthear, Mom. “PM: Covid-19 cash to needy will continue.” The Phnom Penh Post. 26 November 2020. Accessed on 29 January 2021. https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/pm-covid-19-cash-needy-will-continue
 According to CIPO.
 Oudom, Sam and Ros Phthinaraut. “In Rural Mondulkiri, Teachers Fear Poorer Students Have Fallen Behind.” VOD, 4 Sep 2020. Accessed on 29 January 2021. https://vodenglish.news/in-rural-mondulkiri-teachers-fear-poorer-students-have-fallen-behind/
 Flynn, Gerald and Jazmyn Himel. “School Closures Highlight Inequality in Education as Classes Move Online.” Cambodianess, 23 March 2020. Accessed on 29 January 2021.
 The World Bank. “Cambodia: $93 Million Project to Improve Land Tenure Security for Poor Farmers, Indigenous Communities.” Press release, 26 June 2020. Accessed on 29 January 2021. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2020/06/26/cambodia-93-million-project-to-improve-land-tenure-security-for-poor-farmers-indigenous-communities
 Radio Free Asia (RFA). “Cambodia’s Land Concessions Yield Few Benefits, Sow Social and Environmental Devastation.” 26 August 2020.
Accessed on 29 January 2021. https://www.rfa.org/english/news/cambodia/concessions-08262020174829.html
 Crothers, Lauren. “Goldman Prize-winning Cambodian activist arrested, released in Cambodia.” Mongabay, 24 March 2020.
Accessed on 29 January 2021.
 Humphrey, Chris. “Under cover of COVID-19, loggers plunder Cambodian wildlife sanctuary.” Mongabay, 31 August 2020.
Accessed on 29 January 2021. https://news.mongabay.com/2020/08/under-cover-of-covid-19-loggers-plunder-cambodian-wildlife-sanctuary/
 Humphrey, Chris. “Alleged gov’t-linked land grabs threaten Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains.” Mongabay, 1 December 2020. Accessed on 29 January 2021. https://news.mongabay.com/2020/12/alleged-government-linked-land-grabs-threaten-cambodias-cardamom-mountains/
 Koemsoeun, Soth. “Mondulkiri officials ‘cleared forest’.” The Phnom Penh Post, 6 February 2020. Accessed on 29 January 2021. https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/mondulkiri-officials-cleared-forest
 Savi, Khorn. “Soldiers, residents trade blame over illegal logging in Mondulkiri.” The Phnom Penh Post, 27 March 2020. Accessed on 29 January 2021. https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/soldiers-residents-trade-blame-over-illegal-logging-mondulkiri
 Tatarski, Michael. “Vietnamese agribusiness firm HAGL accused of clearing indigenous land in Cambodia.” Mongabay, 15 June 2020. Accessed on 29 January 2021. https://news.mongabay.com/2020/06/vietnamese-agribusiness-firm-hagl-accused-of-clearing-indigenous-land-in-cambodia/
 Radio Free Asia (RFA). “Authorities Threaten to Arrest Activists Monitoring Illegal Logging in Cambodia’s Prey Lang Forest.” 23 April 2020.
Accessed on 29 January 2021. https://www.rfa.org/english/news/cambodia/forest-04232020172540.html
 Keeton-Olsen, Danielle. “Cambodian firm accused of creating a ‘monopoly in the timber business’.” Mongabay, 13 May 2020. Accessed on 29 January 2021. https://news.mongabay.com/2020/05/cambodian-firm-accused-of-creating-a-monopoly-in-the-timber-business/
 Radio Free Asia (RFA). “NGOs, Activists Decry Blocking of Tree-Blessing Ceremony at Cambodia’s Prey Lang Forest.” 25 February 2020.
Accessed on 29 January 2021. https://www.rfa.org/english/news/cambodia/ceremony-02252020125131.html
 Keeton- Olsen, Danielle and Hun Sirivadh. “Officials Block Prey Lang Activists From Forest Ahead of Annual Event, VOD, 21 February 2020.
Accessed on 29 January 2021. https://vodenglish.news/officials-block-prey-lang-activists-from-forest-ahead-of-annual-event/
 Prathna, Saut Sok. “Ministry, Forest Patrollers Accuse Each Other of Breaking the Law.” VOD, 25 February 2020. Accessed on 29 January 2021. https://vodenglish.news/ministry-forest-patrollers-accuse-each-other-of-breaking-the-law/
 Sovuthy, Khy. “Groups ‘appalled’ after ministry bars conservationists from protecting forests.” Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association, 26 February 2020. Accessed on 29 January 2021.
 Koemsoeun, Soth. “Activist ban ‘spurs forest crimes’.” The Phnom Penh Post, 21 July 2020. Accessed on 29 January 2021. https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/activist-ban-spurs-forest-crimes