This post is part of Blog Action Day, which aims to unite bloggers around a topic of global importance on one day each year. The theme for this year is inequality. You can check out posts from other Blog Action Day participants and follow the conversation on Twitter (and watch inequality-related segments from Last Week Tonight).
We round the bend. Another hike up a sharp incline reveals a tiny silhouette of a town, scattered huts on stilts surrounded by wandering livestock, with a blue tarped tent in the middle. Somehow, they had managed to bring a tarp and twenty red plastic chairs to the middle of the most remote province in northeastern Cambodia in the worst part of the rainy season. The community is ready. They have been preparing for this for weeks.
A couple years ago, this community started the process to title their land, prompted by local NGOs. For the indigenous people of Cambodia, like billions of people around the world, land is their most valuable, sacred asset. It’s the source of their livelihoods, water, history, culture, and religion, and they will do anything to protect it. Many people have owned or used their land informally for decades or even centuries under customary law, but titling efforts are becoming increasingly necessary as wealthy actors attempt to use local people’s land for mining, timber extraction, or agro-industrial farms.
Land ownership and use is becoming vastly unequal. If a land title will tip the scales in the community’s favour, they’ll try their best to get one.
The community I visited in northeastern Cambodia has a spirit forest where the residents pray and worship. The tent is set up next to it. Elders walk amongst the trees and plead with the forest spirits to rule in their favour today. We sit down in some of the red plastic chairs. A large banner hangs, denoting the purpose of the ceremony (in Khmer): “Self-Identification Ceremony, Sponsored by [NGO], Partnered with the Department of Rural Development.”
The event is one of the first of many steps in the community land-titling process. This particular ceremony is where the government recognises the community’s “self-identification” as an indigenous community, which will mark them down in the official national records and start them on the long (practically endless) course to obtain a land title to formally secure the rights over all the land they own, use and worship.
The stakes are high for the community. Powerful foreigners have been doing “research” on their land and surrounding forest. Over half of Cambodia’s arable land and one third of the country’s total area has been sold to foreign companies, owned by one percent of Cambodia’s population. The village knows this is a trend that’s not slowing down.
Land grabs have become the norm around the world: land is in demand. Governments all over Africa, Asia and South America are granting millions of hectares to investors for agro-industrial development, mining and deforestation projects. As developing countries attempt to incorporate themselves into the global economy, they often use the most readily-available market: natural resources. Much like indigenous people rely on Cambodia’s rich soil to support their livelihoods, the government depends on the land to support the economy – and officials rely on it to pad their own pockets. Some estimate that over 33 million hectares of land have been granted or are under contract around the world – this is likely a gross underestimate due to the lack of reporting on land deals, but even so, it’s over twice the size of the United Kingdom!
The government officials arrive and are welcomed into the tarped tent with a well-rehearsed song. They start asking questions about how the community identifies as their particular indigenous group, the Tumpuon.
In response to the ongoing worldwide land-grab, more countries are adopting laws that allow people and communities to register or title their lands. In theory, legal recognition of ownership increases tenure security, as it helps people stake a claim for their land when they have to compete for it against wealthy investors.
In practice, titling processes are convoluted and cumbersome. Even where titles are granted, investors’ interests trump. Investments often take place in countries lacking rule of law and infrastructure. Most communities are poor and powerless, easy targets, and many live on good soil. The law rarely works in their favour. The investments themselves do little good locally: the agreements lack basic considerations for human rights and the environment, and there is a lack of vetting or oversight throughout the implementation.
This village knows Cambodia’s story, and they don’t want to become a part of it. The government officials get the answers and documents they need, and the ceremony closes with another song, voices and gongs ringing together. The village elders thank us and declare the ceremony a success.
They will likely get through this first step in the process. Unfortunately, it’s less likely their land will be fully recognised. It is this same arable, rich-soiled land the government wants to grant to multi-national corporations. In Cambodia, hundreds of communities have already completed this multi-stepped process, and only a few titles have been granted (compared to the statistic cited above, where over half of the country’s arable land has been granted to investors).
For this community and thousands of others around the world, the need to secure land in the face of more powerful outside actors will continue to escalate. How can communities like this one secure their land – and thus their livelihoods, culture and history? How can they navigate their unequal treatment under the colour of law? Our world is rich in natural resources, with the potential for us all to have a piece. How can we ensure those resources are equitably distributed for all to enjoy?
As I was leaving the ceremony for a long trip home down the rainy roads, an elder approached me with fire in his eyes and said, simply, “Struggle.” He knows this is a fight that will continue, a question that has not yet been answered. Most importantly, he knows his community cannot depend on external actors to secure equal rights of ownership – success will have to come from within.
Featured image is a village in Ratanakiri Province in northeastern Cambodia. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.