Putla: A 75-year-old woman indigenous rights defender
The global rush for natural resources is one of the biggest threats against indigenous peoples’ as they often live in remote areas which are still rich on natural resources. Unfortunately, indigenous peoples are increasingly being criminalised – or even killed – when defending their rights. In Cambodia, a collective effort and a courageous act by a 75-year-old woman helped the Souy people defend their land against an invading company with ties to the President.
If you drive two and a half hours West of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, you reach a community consisting of five small villages with a total population of around 1,350 people. They are the last members of the indigenous Souy people, who until recently, lived peacefully on their ancestral land. This is where the indigenous rights defender Putla has lived most of her life – except when she was forced to move away by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime in 1979.
Today, she is a 75-year-old woman whose skin has been tainted by the sun and from a hard life. She is a tiny woman, not more than 150 centimeters tall, and often dresses in the Souy people’s traditional black cloth. Putla is a woman who looks fragile at first sight – but this impression only lasts until she starts to speak, or until you look into her eyes. She has a strong and crisp voice, and her eyes reflect the hardships that she has endured in her life. She is a very warm woman who often finishes her tirades with heartfelt laughter.
Photo: Putla was 65 years old when she risked everything to stop the invasion of her villages land
Traditionally, Putla and the Souy people have lived a life based on shifting cultivation, or rotational farming. The method has proven very effective to secure biodiversity in forests and to reduce CO2 emissions (read more in this recent publication >>). The Souy people have many unique traditions and a strong culture, including a four-month-long “spiritual thanksgiving” (called Sannom), which contributes to a strong collective feeling – where both women and men equally participate in the decision-making process – and is celebrated in their own language.
Increasing pressure on the Souy people’s land
In the beginning of this millennium, the Souy people’s livelihood was under increasing pressure from newcomers who, illegally, entered their land and started cutting down trees. The illegal loggers were very effective, and, despite many attempts, the Souy people could not prevent a massive deforestation of their land and a dwindling harvest from their crops because of this. However, the situation deteriorated even more when a sugarcane company – with close ties to the President – was given the rights to around 200 hectares of the Kaoduntey village’s land; the village where Putla lives. The 200 hectares surrounded the village and covered many small waterholes that the villagers depended on to irrigate their crops.
Photo: There existed a strong solidarity among the Souy villages
Collective protest against land-grabbing
Everyone in the village would be affected by this land-grabbing, and the solidarity between them was strong from the beginning. To defend their rights and livelihoods, Putla and other women from her village went to the four neighboring Souy villages to create awareness about the issue and get their support. They quickly agreed to block the roads when trolleys from the company drove through their villages.
“Most of the community members were against the company, but we didn’t have any leaders. It was a collective decision to fight against the land-grabbing” Putla explains, remembering how it all started.
Despite the community’s official claims/rights to the land, the company did not withdraw. Instead they mustered the support of the police. When the villagers began blocking the roads, the company answered by using force to remove them and many men from the villages were arrested or beaten.
To counter this violence, some of the women from the villages volunteered to stand in front of blockades, as they were less likely to be beaten. In the evenings, they gathered in front of the local district chief’s house to show their protest against the arrests and the whole situation. However, the women who put themselves in the frontline where not immune from consequence.
“I received many threats, but I didn’t care about it. I only care about my land. If I care about my life with my land, the life itself is meaningless without the land”, Putla explains, when asked where she got the courage to keep fighting for their rights.
Photo: It required a collective effort to withstand the pressure from the company and local government
Risking everything to stop the trolleys
The situation escalated in 2009, when the company tried to enter Souy peoples’ land in a surprise move one early morning. At that time, 65-year-old Putla was the first one who noticed the sound of the incoming trolleys. She immediately went out on the road and threw herself down in front of the trolleys to block it. As the trolley halted just a few meters from her, Putla yelled:
“If you take our land you might as well take our lives. My life is nothing worth without the land.”
Alarmed by the noise, the other villagers soon came to back her up, all of which was too much for the company employees, who soon retreated, leaving this small woman on the road. Shortly after, negotiations between the village and the company began, and the Souy people were given back the rights to their ancestral land that surrounded their village.
Photo: Putla standing on the same road where she stopped the trolleys in 2009
The importance of solidarity and survival
Even though this risky move by Putla became the symbol of the turning point of that land conflict for the Souy people, Putla has no doubt when she tries to explain what the key was to the successful defence of their rights.
“The most important thing is to have a strong solidarity, to help each other and to stand together.”
When asked whether she would throw herself under a trolley again, her answer comes abruptly and without hesitation:
"I will keep fighting until I die. I will not lose my ancestral land – it is a fight we cannot afford to lose!" Before she chuckles and says, “I’ll not be the loser, but the winner”.
Photo: Around 1,350 Souy people are living in five small villages
Increasing pressure on indigenous rights defenders
Despite progress in recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights at the global level over the past 30 years, these achievements are in many cases not translated into local realities. According to the United Nations (UN), indigenous rights defenders are facing greater violations of their rights today than they were just a decade ago. Every year, thousands of indigenous peoples are criminalised and discriminated against – increasingly, this trend takes the highest toll of all: the life of indigenous rights defenders.
In 2017, more than 400 environmental and human rights defenders were killed – and approximately 50 per cent of these were indigenous peoples.