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Cambodia’s Environment & Natural Resources Code: A Threat To Indigenous Peoples Rights To Land & Sustainable Development

Cambodia’s Environment and Natural Resources Code: A threat to Indigenous Peoples Rights to Land and Sustainable Development

In a move that could exacerbate land dispossession and discrimination against Indigenous Peoples, the passage by the Royal Government of Cambodia of the Environment and Natural Resources Code (Royal Kram No. NS/RKM/0623/007) poses a significant threat to social, cultural, and economic rights of Indigenous communities. The Code also directly contravenes the rights of Indigenous communities, sparking concerns of intensified land grabbing and violence.

The enactment of Cambodia's Environment and Natural Resources Code represents a critical juncture in the country's legal landscape. It grants a latitude of power to private interests to exploit natural resources in the name of “sustainable economic development”, at the expense of Indigenous land rights. This Code threatens the very existence and autonomy of Indigenous communities by blurring out indigeneity and their inherent rights to develop indigenous domains, cementing a system of discrimination and land dispossession.

Legalized land dispossession?

In a National Consensus Consultative Workshop held on 19 December 2023, representatives from Indigenous communities hailed from 12 provinces (Kratie, Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri, Stung Treng, Preah Vihear, Kampong Thom, Kampong Speu, Pursat, Koh Kong, Banteay Meanchey, Sihanoukville and Battambang) have jointly denounced the threat the Environment and Natural Resources Code has posed to their collective rights as Indigenous Peoples. Through a joint statement of Indigenous community representatives, the 189-strong delegates stressed the lack of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) in the designation of management zones that encroach indigenous lands and territories, fearing the restriction and prohibition of entry to their territories and deprivation of land ownership, thereby affecting various aspects of their lives that are greatly connected to the land. Further, they have feared that “[a]s long as Indigenous Peoples continue to assert customary ownership in their current areas, they will suffer legal fines, transitional fines, litigation or authoritative forces, imprisonment, convictions, coercion, intimidation” and various forms of violence and repression.

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Indigenous leaders have since called for the inclusion of FPIC process ensuring the right to self-determination and governance of Indigenous communities, and to repeal the second paragraph of the Community Areas Section of Article 364 which gives overbreadth authority to the Ministry of Environment on land titling, and instead to expedite the process of registering indigenous lands and the recognition of cultural and heritage sites.

“The potential ramification of Cambodia's Environment and Natural Resources Code is dire, and failure to repeal such policy could exacerbate land grabbing and violence, which are already prevalent issues faced by Indigenous Peoples in Cambodia“ cautioned Beverly Longid of the International Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self-Determination and Liberation (IPMSDL), highlighting how the management of environment and natural resources in the name of “sustainable economic development” is weaponized against Indigenous peoples, enforced in most cases through violence and repressive forms.

Conservation for investment, without ancestral land rights

Recent reports highlight Cambodia's aggressive pursuit of foreign investments and projects, placing the country in the top 25 in the world in terms of foreign direct investments. These investments are predominantly concentrated in sectors such as agro-industry, energy, and extractive industry that are particularly situated in Indigenous territories. Wide Scale legal and illegal mining of timber and natural resources covering thousands of hectares within Indigenous communities remain a huge threat not only to climate and environment due to deforestation, but also to indigenous inhabitants in these areas. Concessions and expansion of lands to exploit are often executed not according to the development needs of the local and indigenous communities, but through patronage favouring multi-billion corporations.

The Environment and Natural Resources Code will further expand the existing overlapping of areas between economic and land concessions, and protected areas, with the former encroaching indigenous territories.

The irony of economic development and environment conservation both contradict the rights of Indigenous Peoples to exercise self-determination. The capitalist-driven selling of carbon credits for example, has prevented indigenous peoples from accessing their traditional lands and harmed their livelihoods. The threat of arrest, criminalization and destruction of indigenous practices, persecution, and other forms of violence are more imminent than before. Indigenous peoples are the typical casualties of for-profit conservation, and this has become a national policy with the approval of the Environment and Natural Resources Code.

A global trend and challenge

"The weaponization of laws to disregard Indigenous peoples' rights to land and self-determination is a global trend” said Jiten Yumnam, co-Convenor of IPMSDL. “Similar occurrences have been documented in various countries. In the Philippines, the imminent threat of Charter Change would worsen landlessness. The legalization of Marco Temporal as a state policy in Brazil would invalidate Indigenous Peoples claims to their lands and would open up the Amazon, one of the few remaining frontiers of the Earth, to capitalist extraction and exploitation. Legislating laws to accelerate so-called development is happening across continents, and it is almost always used against Indigenous communities” he added.

Upholding Indigenous land rights is essential for environmental sustainability and natural resource conservation, objectives ostensibly targeted by the new Environment and Natural Resources Code. “We are not against development. But development for whom? What kind of development?” said Yumnam.

Paul Belisario of IPMSDL emphasized that "sustainable development is not achieved at the expense of Indigenous land rights. Sustainable development is when Indigenous Peoples’ land rights are upheld, their traditional practices respected to which have proved to be vital in sustainably managing and utilizing resources across generations.”

“It is a vested interest of the Indigenous peoples to protect the environment, to hone practices from across generations that utilize natural resources in a restrained and sustainable manner. Therefore, not until States recognize the huge potential of tapping Indigenous practices, recognize their right to self-determination, and their security of tenure in owning these lands, that development will be sustainable, and the environment truly protected.” Belisario added.#

Read full statement and translations here:

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