Conservation Helps Secure Land Rights in Cambodia

A vulnerable ethic minority village inside Cambodia’s remote Seima Protection Forest recenlty became one of the first in Cambodia to receive a collective land title, which will help villagers fend off threats to their land and culture while also strengthening conservation goals.

The Senior Minister for Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, H.E. Im Chhun Lim, visited the ethnically Bunong village of Andoung Kraloeng village to mark this historic moment. The legal system has been piloted in three villages – the first two received titles last December, but the third is the only one in a protected forest and so sets crucial precedents for similar villages.

It has taken eight years for these first villages to receive their titles, but with the system now in place the rate of issuance is now expected to rise. Hundreds of other villages are eligible and many have begun the application process, including 12 in and around the Seima area. Eventually it is hoped to offer this opportunity to all interested villages around the reserve.

Seima is important for its extensive evergreen and deciduous forests and the high levels of biodiversity, including large populations of endangered primates, wild cattle, Asian elephants and green peafowl. Over 40 species at the site are globally threatened with extinction.

Northeastern Cambodia is home to many indigenous ethnic minority groups. They experience relatively high levels of poverty and often have a high dependence on natural resources, including forest products. The traditional collective land ownership systems, along with poverty and marginal political status make these communities vulnerable to land grabbing by powerful individuals and companies.

The 2001 Land Law enables them to obtain collective land titles which greatly increases land security. The application process also provides a framework for strengthening community technical capacity and social cohesion to address the many threats facing ethnic minorities by establishing and training Indigenous Community Commissions at the village level.

Over the years the village committee and elders in Andoung Kraloeng have grown stronger and more effective. They have successfully repelled many attempts by outsiders to grab land and damage other resources in the village, often in cooperation with law enforcement staff linked to the project.

Since 2003, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has worked to support this process in Seima. The dual aims are to strengthen community rights to manage their natural resources and enhance the conservation of endangered biodiversity. The work is part of a larger conservation program covering the Seima Protection Forest, one of the most important sites for biodiversity conservation in the region. The program is led jointly by WCS and the Cambodian Government's Forestry Administration, with the involvement of the Ministry of Land Management and several other government agencies. The first twelve years of this program have transformed the site – a former logging concession – into one of the most successful protected areas in the region.

Other key technical partners include: International Labour Organisation and GIZ. Critical support has been provided by: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, DFID, Danida, NZ Aid, The McKnight Foundation, and Asian Development Bank, among other key donors. U.S. government support to WCS work in the Seima landscape is provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Asian Elephant and Great Ape Funds.

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