Land Sales, Covid-19 Increasingly Upend Indigenous Ways of Life

Barren patches of land pepper O'Reang district's landscape as a result of deforestation. (Heng Vichet/VOD)
Barren patches of land pepper O'Reang district's landscape as a result of deforestation. (Heng Vichet/VOD)

Residents are being pressured to sell off their land to outsiders, even in ancestral forests and burial grounds, as local officials push the deals along, allege indigenous villagers in Mondulkiri province. Trees are being illegally razed, and groups of locals seeking to stand watch are being stopped and broken up. The hardships of the pandemic mean there’s not enough money to ritually sacrifice buffalo this year, and authorities wouldn’t allow any large ceremony anyway. There’s sickness all around, they say.

A ban on gatherings amid the pandemic is hindering forest patrols and festivities, and accelerating land sales and the deterioration of cultural bonds in indigenous areas of Mondulkiri, villagers say.

“Our community land, which we have been preserving for our children and grandchildren, has been sold with the stamp [of local authorities],” says Prong Phoeung, 48, an indigenous Bunong community leader in O’Reang district. “When we asked the commune and district, they said they don’t know. I do not understand.”

Outsiders are coming from the cities and putting up wire fences that overlap with locals’ land and with each other. “In Mondulkiri, if you come to visit and see, there’s no free space, and they don’t know whom this or that farm or graveyard belongs to, they just bring more fencing to install,” Phoeung says.

“This thing is happening in every village, commune and district.”

Mondulkiri, a sparsely populated hilly province in the country’s northeast, has become a hotbed of land deals as prices shoot up. An airport development is planned amid ecotourism ambitions, leading to a bout of disquiet around two years ago over land loss and compensation. Since, land speculation has spread across the province.

The past two years have also seen a string of corruption cases related to Mondulkiri land: In 2019, a Justice Ministry undersecretary of state was accused of threatening to jail villagers if they did not give him 472 hectares. A year ago, 10 public officials, including a senator, provincial military commander and the provincial governor, were identified as stealing state land. The list of infringing officials included three commune chiefs as well as the district governors of O’Reang and Koh Nhek, though some were merely transferred as punishment. In June, Phnom Penh police chief Sar Thet was named in a villagers’ complaint as a buyer of a designated cultural area.

“The powerful people force people to sell their lands,” says Phoeung. “They keep provoking people to sell their land and their land is dwindling significantly. It’s happened just in these recent months.”

“Now they intimidate and warn people that if they do not sell their land, someone will file a complaint against them and they could face imprisonment,” he says.

Pleuk Phearom, head of the Bunong Indigenous Network in Mondulkiri, says the land sales and encroachment are extending further into culturally protected areas.

Spirit forests, ancestral land and burial grounds are seeing clearing and the issuance of land titles. The titles go to brokers who profit from the sales, she says.

Land already being cultivated by locals and registered with authorities is also being secretly sold off, Phearom says.

“This land was already recognized by the village, commune and district authorities. … Farmland growing mangoes and jackfruit has been bulldozed, and they claim they are legitimate and have a title and they say we are there illegally,” she says. “We will become a prisoner on our own land … because they accuse us of stealing their land.”

The appropriation of land ramped up as Covid-19 arrived in remote areas, imposing restrictions on villagers, Phearom adds.

“It’s an opportunity for bad officials to issue titles and documents all over the place, and we are very concerned about it since it’s happening everywhere,” she says. “It’s a huge scale of clearing.”

This thing is happening in every village, commune and district.

Forest Patrols Locked Down

Indigenous communities used to patrol the forests in groups of 20 to 30, chasing off illegal loggers and land grabbers, Phearom says.

But now the patrol parties are limited to two people due to pandemic fears. “When we go to stop them, they do not listen to us because we have only a few people,” she says. “And when we ask the village and commune to intervene, they don’t go ‘because it’s Covid … so it’s difficult for me to work.’”

“Covid has given more opportunities for loggers and people encroaching on land to clear the forests,” she says.

Phoeung, in O’Reang, says community patrols in his area have been disallowed altogether. Military police and environmental officers stop villagers from going into the forests, saying they are not allowed in protected areas.

“The district and commune do not allow us to patrol,” he says. “Before, the authorities joined villagers’ patrols, but now they are not cooperating with villagers. … We don’t know why they don’t cooperate with us.”

When villagers do get in, they witness the logging of trees, he says.

Mondulkiri’s Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary suffers from thousands of hectares of illegal logging every year, according to satellite data. Southern areas near a rubber plantation as well as the sanctuary’s eastern side near a pine plantation and the proposed airport are seeing the most damage. A conservationist has previously told VOD that land speculation was a major driver.

Meanwhile, in another of Mondulkiri’s protected areas, the Phnom Nam Lear Wildlife Sanctuary, the provincial administration has proposed building a special economic zone with a shopping mall, hotel, casino, warehouses and mixed-use areas near the Vietnamese border.

The pressure on community patrols echoes authorities’ actions elsewhere in the country, notably at the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary in Kampong Thom, Kratie, Preah Vihear and Stung Treng provinces. There, community patrols have been banned for more than two years and environmentalists have been arrested. The U.S. has pulled funding to the government’s conservation efforts in the sanctuary as deforestation there is “worsening” and “the government continues to silence and target local communities and their civil society partners,” the U.S. has said.

Nhan Seav, 70, head of a Bunong community in O’Reang district’s Sen Monorom commune, says he believes the villagers in his area are being watched by the interests who clear the forests, and when would-be patrollers head out, loggers are tipped off.

“When we are going to go, they already know it,” Seav says. “Four to five [vehicles] carry wood out every day.”

Broader Impacts

Seav adds that restrictions extend beyond forest patrols. Many villagers have been holding weddings and funerals in secret to avoid getting caught for Covid violations, he says.

Phearom, of the Bunong network, says there is widespread fear of getting diagnosed with Covid-19 — even for deceased family members.

“If they tell them, the authorities wouldn’t allow them to have a funeral,” she says. “When they get sick, they don’t dare to go to the hospital.”

Provincial data on ethnic minorities have yet to be released from the 2019 Census. But those who identified their religion as “other” — that is, not Buddhism, Islam or Christianity — made up 36 percent of Mondulkiri in 2008, falling to 21 percent in 2019. That remains the second-highest share behind only Ratanakiri, also in the northeast and likewise populated by many indigenous residents.

Villagers and officials in the neighboring Ratanakiri have also spoken of Covid-19’s ancillary effects, notably a rise in child marriages as more students drop out in remote areas. Provinces are currently in the midst of reopening schools after months of closures.

Leaders have always reminded the provincial authorities where indigenous peoples are living to pay attention, especially to work together.

Ratanakiri’s Taveng district social affairs deputy director Chhum Vanoeun says child marriages — typically for adolescents aged 16 or 17 — have become more prevalent amid the pandemic.

“They do not go to school as much now. They just drop out of school. Then they go on to get married. The main reason, I think, is there seems to be no one to help encourage them,” Vanoeun says.

According to a 2018 study by Plan International, as many as one in nine girls aged 12 to 17 were married in Ratanakiri.

Mondulkiri’s administrative chief, Sorn Sarun, acknowledges some problems in the past with land clearing, as well as vaccine hesitancy among indigenous groups, but says they have been solved.

“Now there is nothing; before there was,” he says, adding that local officials have been repeatedly reminded not to illegally issue titles on protected land.

“There are no cases because we issued a letter to instruct them to ask them to stop and delay signing documents and other things that are not legitimate,” Sarun says. “We have issued it in 2018, and recently we also reissued it to remind them not to forget it.”

He adds that local officials have been busy preventing forestry crimes as well as any collusion between officials and land traders.

“We have taken very serious measures. … We even patrol at night time. We use three forces and we have worked so hard,” Sarun says. “There are no such cases. When it occurs we always prevent it.”

Ek Buntha, deputy director-general of the Culture Ministry, said last month, after civil society groups issued a statement raising awareness about the challenges indigenous groups are facing amid the pandemic, that the ministry has paid attention to indigenous peoples’ issues and always has brought their concerns and challenges to the head of government to find a solution.

“The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts’ leaders have always reminded the provincial authorities where indigenous peoples are living to pay attention, especially to work together, and have suggested indigenous people to approach us in order to discuss their concerns and challenges to address, protect or preserve their cultural traditions and identity.”

Community members say land speculators are fencing off their land and selling it without the community’s knowledge. (Heng Piseth/VOD)

Selling Land, Buying Cars

Keo Vanna, 52, sold part of his farmland in Sen Monorom city’s Romnea commune for $100,000 in 2019.

He bought a car for around $50,000, spent some money fixing his house and remaining farm, and now has none of it left, he says.

Vanna, an indigenous Bunong villager, says he received certificates from the local administrations recognizing his land in 1997 and in 2007.

But he alleges that he first experienced local authorities trying to sell off half of his land in 2013. At the time, he complained and negotiated with the commune.

“How could I agree to 50 percent of it since I’ve been farming on that land for so long and I did not have any plan to sell it and [planned to] give it to my children?” he says. “After negotiating and discussing, I agreed to cut about 1 hectare.”

In recent years, pressure to sell land has increased, and Vanna felt he could not hold out forever. He had about 15 hectares, and ended up selling about 10.

“If I kept it, I was afraid that they would continue to make land titles [to sell anyway]. I also regret it, but because they are so corrupt, I rushed to sell it.”

Typically, fields left fallow become targets for expropriation, Vanna says. For traditional rotational farming, when villagers move to work another area and then return, they find the land “already belongs to someone else,” he says.

“My farm already had crops and I knew people who could help and support me. … We have evidence and witnesses that this land belonged to me and was recognized,” but he could not hold onto it all.

He says other people — he estimates “a majority” of his neighbors — have sold their land and ended up impoverished.

“People sell their land to start businesses, but mostly they are poor and sell their land and waste their money and do not use their money to start any business,” Vanna says.

He still has enough land for subsistence farming, and is better off than most, he says.

Our community land, which we have been preserving for our children and grandchildren, has been sold with the stamp [of local authorities].

Sickness

Seav, the 70-year-old in O’Reang, says the loss of land is a loss of the community’s culture.

“Now we have been tricked into exchanging it to buy cars. Some of them buy two or three cars while they have no more land for growing,” he says. “When we sell our land, we lose our indigenous traditions and culture.”

Amid Covid-19, the community’s rituals can hardly be seen — they’re both disallowed and unaffordable, he says.

“This year we could not even afford a pig, so we could not hold a ceremony to kick out the evil and pray for the mountain spirit to kick out Covid from our village, because we do not have money,” Seav says. “This ceremony could help protect us.”

Seng Kim San, 34, in Koh Nhek district’s Sre Huy commune, says that in past years, his village would hold large festivals involving the killing of buffalo. “Before, it was very fun,” Kim San says.

The ceremony was already downgraded last year to a pig. This year, the villagers had promised to sacrifice buffalo if Covid-19 ended quickly — a special, extra-large day to draw outside attention to what’s happening to their community land — but there might be no ceremony at all.

Authorities had instructed people not to gather. Maybe people could meet in twos or threes, but there is little money.

Kim San says his people’s traditions and culture will fade away. The loss of sacred land and the withholding of ceremonies will have spiritual repercussions, he believes. Ancestral spirits will be angered, and Covid-19 will beget more disease.

“When we do not hold ceremonies or pray to our ancestors, the sickness continues,” he says.

In recent months, around 100 hectares of ancestral land was cleared and sold off.

“They did it secretly,” he says. “I don’t know how they did it.”

Villagers complained and protested, but the land traders had official land titles recognized by authorities.

Kim San knows the age-old mountains are in trouble, and he says he feels suspicious, hopeless and afraid.

“They cleared our graveyard and ancestral forest land, so it will cause sickness to our villagers.”

Additional reporting by Morm Moniroth and Khut Sokun

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