Indigenous People from Pa Tang Defend Spirit Forest from Illegal Loggers

Oxfam - Cambodia - Indigenous Peoples - Land Rights

Sav Leat and Sal Klob lead the forest patrolling together with some young women and men in the community forest of Pa Tang village, Sesan Commune of Ratanakiri province. Photo by Savann Oeurm/Oxfam

Having our land registered helps us prevent land grabbing conflicts. Without a Communal Land Title, private companies will continue to grab our lands.
Sal Klob
Councilor, Sesan Commune

A village protects its sacred forest and ancestral land in remote northern Cambodia

By Savann Oeurm

Back in 2017, a few villagers from Pa Tang, who belong to the Jarai indigenous group from Northern Cambodia, were gathering vegetables and mushrooms one afternoon when they saw a tractor knocking down trees to pave a road for illegal logging. One of them immediately reported the illegal activity to their village’s Land Committee. “About 40 women and men surrounded the tractor and we asked their operators to stop what they were doing,” shared Sav Leat, a 31-year old leader of Pa Tang Land Committee.

Although the villagers could not understand the language the tractor operators spoke, they were able to distinguish them as Vietnamese workers who are employed by an unknown Cambodian businessman to cut down and steal big trees in their protected community forest. “We have already stopped this company from clearing our forest in the past,” said Sav Leat. “We fined them $2,500 back then. But after a while, here they are again.”

This time, the villagers made sure to seize the company’s tractor and bring it to their village. The workers apologized and were allowed to leave; but the tractor remained in Pa Tang. The villagers intended to bring it back to them after settling another fine, but Sav Leat said nobody from the company ever came to negotiate with them. So now, the villagers decided to put the tractor to good use by sharing it amongst themselves to help them in their farming needs.

Illegal loggers transport woods from the nearby community forests of Pa Tang to sell to buyers at the Vietnam boarder. Photo by Savann Oeurm/Oxfam

Illegal Logging and Land Grabs

The decision to seize the tractor in 2017 was just one of many actions that Pa Tang villagers had to make in recent years to defend their beloved forest from illegal logging and outright land grabs.

To protect their land, Pa Tang villagers surveyed and registered their forest in order to get a Communal Land Title (CLT) that will allow them to sustainably manage their ancestral lands as a recognized indigenous community. Oxfam’s partner, Indigenous Community Support Organization (ICSO) is working with the villagers to help them secure their CLT.

“Before ICSO began working in Pa Tang in 2014, the villagers had no idea of their land perimeters; where their village land started and ended,“ shared Sal Klob, 39, a councilor in the Sesan Commune where Pa Tang is located. “It’s really difficult because the villagers did not know the exact boundary of their village,” he continued. ICSO has since helped the people of Pa Tang (75 households, 341+ individuals) to demarcate 11 hectares of spirit forest where they worship nature and their ancestors, as well as three other protected forest areas with a size of about 90 hectares.

“Having our land registered helps us  prevent land grabbing conflicts,” says Sal Klob. “Without the land registration or Communal Land Title, private companies will continue to grab our lands. And if we are to distribute our lands amongst ourselves, villagers can just decide by themselves to sell our lands in exchange for money to buy motorbikes and cars. If our community has a registered CLT, we can’t sell our lands to outsiders” he added.

Sav Leat stands behind the young women in the community forest of Pa Tang village while they are posting for a picture to share on their facebook. Photo by Savann Oeurm/Oxfam

Creating a Community Development Plan

“In the past, the people of Pa Tang did not know how to defend our land from private companies that are interested in mining exploration and agro-business in the areas around Pa Tang,” says Sav Leat. “Nobody helped us know more He says there was a lot of conflict about land issues.

In 2014, ICSO started supporting villagers like Sav Leat and others to know more about their human rights and land rights. They assisted them in developing their leadership and facilitation skills. They conducted trainings on natural resource management. “This knowledge is very important for me as well as my community because it helps me protect the interest of the community, especially on defending our land and forest,” says Sav Leat. “It helped us build trust among our community” he added.

ICSO also helped the people of Pa Tang  to create a Community Action Plan (CAP). According to Hub Borin, ICSO’s program officer, they had to get women and young people involved in the planning. This was a challenge, because indigenous women do not normally speak in community meetings or participate in discussions with local authorities. “Around 30 to 40 percent of women joined the training sessions,” Borin says. “Participation of young people and women in making decisions and protecting natural resources has increased between 20 and 30 percent in recent years.”

“I am confident that the three-year CAP will help my community steer the development of the village even without ICSO’s support,” says Sav Leat, “I will continue to support the women’s group in my village, and encourage more women to take on leadership roles.” In addition, the women of Pa Tang actively participated in installing 221 concrete boundary markers to indicate the borders of Pa Tang’s forest land.

Sav Leat and the villagers show one of the concrete boundary markers in one of the community forests in Pa Tang village. Photo by Savann Oeurm/Oxfam

It is a long process to have the indigenous community registered for the CLT. Now, Patang village is reaching Step 18 (recognition from the Ministry of Interior) out of the 29 Steps needed to receive the CLT certification from Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction (MOLMUPC).

Sav Leat expects to have the official CLT certificate by 2020 or 2021. As the leader of the CLT committee, he will work in collaboration with village chief, commune authorities and community leaders of Pa Tang village to mobilise resources for the completion of the CLT process and to implement the CAP.

“In the future, I want my village to be a reputable ecotourism site with an official CLT, and the government to support our efforts to protect our forests and lands,” he says.

Oxfam works with ICSO under its People Protecting their ecosystem in the lower Mekong (PEM) Project to support communities of indigenous peoples in Cambodia to protect their forest and land resources and claim their rights to these natural resources for their sustainable livelihoods.