• Indigenous peoples in Cambodia

    Indigenous peoples in Cambodia

    Cambodia is home to 24 different indigenous peoples and constitute 2-3% of the national population

Indigenous World 2020: Cambodia

Cambodia is home to 24 different Indigenous Peoples, who speak mostly Mon-Khmer or Austronesian languages and constitute 1.4% of the national population, or around 400,000 individuals.1,2 The Indigenous territories include the forested plateaus and highlands of North-eastern Cambodia, approximately 25% of the national territory. While not disaggregated in the national census, other data confirms that Cambodian Indigenous Peoples continue to face discrimination and forced displacement from their lands, which is extinguishing them as distinct groups.3

These patterns are driven by ongoing state and transnational corporate ventures for resource extraction (mainly timber, minerals, hydro and agribusiness), coupled with growing in-migration from other parts of the country. Cambodia voted in 2007 to adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples without reservation, and has ratified the CERD, CEDAW and CRC but has still not ratified ILO Convention 169.4

During its last Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2014, Cambodia accepted a recommendation to “increase measures to tackle illegal land evictions [of] Indigenous people and consider fortifying the legislative framework consistently with international standards”.5 However, this has not led to any actual remedy to the discrimination and land insecurity Indigenous Peoples continued to face in 2019. Indigenous Peoples’ rights movements continued to fight for their human rights; however, with deteriorating democratic freedoms and serious human rights violations, the ground on which the Indigenous rights movement exists has become more precarious. The Cambodian government has persisted on its path of corruption, human rights abuses and non-democratic rule. In general, an increased number of people were arrested and given long sentences for exercising their civil and political rights. The government crackdowns on political parties, NGOs, the media and others perceived to be in “opposition” to the reigning Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP) continued to mark 2019.6


Threats to Indigenous communal land

The Land Law of 2001 and the Forest Law of 2002 were enacted to secure Indigenous communities’ land titles (CLTs), which formally acknowledge and protect the right of Indigenous Peoples to their ancestral lands through communal land titling. However, shortcomings in the implementation of the laws continued to negatively affect Indigenous Peoples in 2019. Instead, this has spurred indiscriminate land grabbing by powerful tycoons and large companies authorised – and sometimes directly supported – by the Cambodian government. Economic Land Concessions (ELCs) have continuously been granted to agro-industrial and mining companies, without due process or fair compensation for communities living on the land.7 The lack of legal mechanisms to counteract land encroachments by ELCs has had devastating consequences for local Indigenous communities.8 Complaints and protests from Indigenous communities often take years to be considered and rarely result in adequate compensation or return of the land. Moreover, protesting remains a dangerous activity, with a high risk of arbitrary arrest or harassment from ELC beneficiaries.9

To ensure and protect the legitimate interests of Indigenous people, the Government of Cambodia imposed the following measures and directions: “To stop providing more economic land concessions but speed up the registration process to at least 10 Indigenous communities a year from 2013”.10 As of 2019, a total of 24 communities held CLTs. Yet only a fragment of communal land is legally recognised and more than 500 Indigenous communities remain without CLTs.11 ELCs have driven economic growth in Cambodia, but not without damaging natural resources. The loss of common resources, especially forests, has had a severe impact on livelihoods, and the spiritual and cultural traditions of Indigenous communities. Deforestation and long-term degradation of ecosystems will adversely affect many who rely directly on natural resources for their subsistence, income and safety net, and this will leave Indigenous Peoples generally more vulnerable to disasters.12

Climate change and development goals

Cambodia is highly exposed to the impacts of global warming and extreme weather, such as floods, drought, rising temperatures and strong winds. The frequency of climate-related disasters has increased in the past three decades,13 with deforestation considered a major cause of flooding in Southeast Asia.14 Across Cambodia, 2019 was marked by reports of unpredictable weather, shifts in the annual rainfall cycle, intensified wildfires, crop failure, drought and extreme heat.15,16 As forests play a crucial role in mitigating climate crisis, increased deforestation and environmental damage is expected to further exacerbate extreme weather,17 biodiversity loss, intensified wildfires, changes in rainfall cycles and Cambodia’s capacity to absorb CO2.18

The Cambodian government has committed to a national framework for the Sustainable Development Goals – the Cambodian SDGs (CSDGs). With Goals 12 – 15 they aim to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts; to conserve and sustainably use the oceans and marine resources for sustainable development; and to protect, restore and promote a sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification and deforestation, reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.19

From a human rights perspective, the CSDGs are missing important targets, including those related to reducing all forms of violence; reducing corruption and developing accountable institutions; ensuring public access to information; protecting fundamental freedoms; strengthening national institutions to prevent violence and combat crime; and promoting and enforcing non-discriminatory laws and policies for sustainable development. Consequently, an important aspect of the SDGs, leaving no one behind has been lost.

Land grabs in Preah Vihear province

Indigenous lands in Preah Vihear province were seriously affected by ELCs in 2019. Only a fragment of the current land dispute cases will be mentioned in this chapter.

Independent media reports reveal how the Cambodian military guarded the workers and bulldozers of agro-industrial company Metreay Pheap Kakse Usahakam Co. Ltd., while they appropriated the land of Indigenous communities. This act was in violation of Defence Ministry orders issued in February 2019 banning military involvement in land encroachments.20 On 20 January 2019, a communal leader and his son were arrested by the Cambodian armed forces over a land dispute with Metreay Pheap. Two months later, the family had still not heard from this leader and he had not been taken before a court.21

The protected area of Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary stretches over the four provinces of Preah Vihear, Kratie, Stung Treng and Kampong Thom. Roughly 250,000 people, many of them Indigenous Kouy, live in the vicinity of the wildlife sanctuary and rely directly on the forest for their livelihoods, with resin extraction from dipterocarp trees being the main source of cash income.22 Prey Lang is also a source of medicines, food, building materials and firewood.23 The Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN), a loosely structured network of Indigenous Kouy and Khmer villagers, has conducted peaceful forest patrols to protect the forest and confiscate logging equipment and illegal timber for decades. The forest patrols and related advocacy work comes with a great risk of threats and violent retaliation from loggers and authorities. Since 2015, the PLCN has used smartphones and a specially designed app to document illegal logging. In 2018, a new security component was added to the app. PLCN members can now systematically report threats, intimidation and violence related to their forest protection activities. The data will be used to assess the scale of threats and intimidation against PLCN members. Preliminary results show that the app is preventing some of the worst abuses as perpetrators can be recorded and documented.24

Despite the forest protection efforts of the PLCN, the Cambodian Youth Network (CYN) documented continuous illegal logging, forest clearance and land encroachment inside the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary in 2019. CYN has delivered its report to the Ministry of Environment and hopes to see immediate action.25

Economic Land Concessions and organised forest crime

According to an investigative report, the agro-industrial company Think Biotech and Angkor Plywood are deeply involved in illegal logging and land grabbing of Indigenous territories. According to the report, many local resin tree owners from Indigenous communities have been threatened and forced to sell their trees to the logging companies, thereby losing their income. Since the villagers have not been able to protect their trees against bulldozers and loggers, many have opted to sell at a low price, as the loggers had threatened to cut the resin trees anyway. The Dy Duk’s sawmill processing the timber publicly announced that they would purchase timber from local people. According to the report, this engaged many poor people to cut trees inside the protected areas. The workers explained that the companies had guaranteed and protected them from arrest and supplied them with chainsaws. Convoys of trucks with valuable timber have been documented leaving the protected areas of Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary on numerous occasions. Protected by the Cambodian armed forces, the convoys travel at night and subsequently transport logs illegally across the border to Vietnam.26 Although the evidence has been presented to the government, the smuggling of illegal timber across the border continues.27

In 2019, USAID and the EU delegation in Cambodia informed the Government of Cambodia that illegal logging operations were taking place in relation to the Think Biotech concession. The Minister of Environment, Say Sam Al, asked the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forest for a joint investigation into the suspected illegal logging in Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary by Think Biotech and Angkor Plywood. Forest activists and residents living near Prey Lang, many of whom are Indigenous Kouy, have filed several complaints and asked the government to take action against the companies.28 However, the report shows how both companies have close ties to the family of Prime Minister Hun Sen and how the Cambodian armed forces, forest rangers and government officials have been complicit in the forest crimes.

Return of ancestral land in Ratanakiri Province but compensation for damages still lacking

In January 2019, after five years of mediation between the Indigenous communities of Ratanakiri and agro-industrial giant Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL), which was granted an ELC to develop large-scale rubber plantations on ancestral Indigenous land, HAGL unilaterally withdrew from the dispute resolution process. Mediated by the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) (the independent watchdog of the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation),29 HAGL left before they had reached a final agreement on the subject of land and water restoration and compensation for damages.30 Consequently, the Government of Ratanakiri province requested CAO’s support to complete the results of the land demarcation process, the concluding phases of the return of 742 hectares of ancestral land from within the HAGL concessions including forests, spirit mountains, wetlands, burial grounds and traditional hunting areas that belonged to 11 Indigenous communities.31

Although the government’s decision to return community land was applauded by the Indigenous communities, they also submitted a second complaint to the CAO repeating their appeal to HAGL to return to the resolution process in order to resolve the pending damages caused by the company. The new complaint provides extensive evidence of the environmental and human rights violations resulting from HAGL’s comprehensive destruction of forests, burial sites and other sacred areas belonging to the Indigenous communities of Ratanakiri. The CAO will remain involved in monitoring the implementation of the land return agreement.

Highlanders Association calls it “an unprecedented recognition of Indigenous land rights over business interests in Cambodia”. While this is a positive development, Indigenous communities still need compensation and help to restore their land and waterways. The loss of forests has severely eroded the communities’ sovereignty over their land, livelihood and traditional agricultural systems, which are profoundly linked to their identity and culture. Foreign investors must be held accountable for violations of human rights and environmental disasters, particularly when they circumvent consultation with the communities affected and fail to gain their consent before starting work.32

The Everything But Arms agreement and violations of the ILO convention

Cambodia is among nearly 50 countries that benefit from duty-free access to EU markets under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme. The EBA is conditional on compliance with the principles of 15 international conventions on fundamental human and labour rights and can be revoked if “serious and systematic violations” are taking place.

In February 2019, the European Parliamentary Research Service identified serious problems relating to human rights in Cambodia. Land grabbing was one of these problems. An estimated 10,000 people have lost their land to EBA-driven agro-industrial land expropriations. This has led to concerns that the EBA scheme is exacerbating human rights violations rather than addressing them.33

The High Representative of the EU has called on Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), in power since 1985, to take immediate action to reinstate democratic freedoms. In response, the Cambodian government stressed that the loss of EBA status would devastate Cambodia’s working class, especially female workers and, in addition, stated that the EU should respect the principles of sovereignty and non-interference in Cambodia’s internal affairs.34 The EU is currently considering whether to withdraw the EBA due to the deteriorating state of human rights in Cambodia. The decision to suspend Cambodia’s’ EBA trade privilege will be taken in February 2020.

Human rights

The report of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has raised concerns about alleged intimidation and attacks against Indigenous Peoples as they seek to exercise their rights related to communal land. The CERD report also stresses what Indigenous Peoples have been emphasising for years; that the land titling process continues to be too lengthy and bureaucratic, thus preventing Indigenous groups from being able to efficiently register their communal land. Moreover, the report points out how insufficient free, prior and informed consent is affecting Indigenous communities, with natural resource extraction, industrial and development projects continuing apace. Prolonged land disputes have reportedly left affected Indigenous individuals homeless during settlement and made Indigenous lands susceptible to land grabbing for commercial purposes. CERD recommends that the government simplify the land titling procedure, allowing Indigenous Peoples to gain recognition and claim their land and, furthermore, to expedite the settling of land disputes and take measures to prevent the displacement of Indigenous Peoples.

The annual report of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) expresses concern at reports of intimidation, harassment and arbitrary detentions of women human right defenders, members of the CNRP, environmental and land activists, all of which has resulted in an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship. Indigenous women are particularly subject to significant barriers when seeking justice and effective remedies for violations of their rights.35

According to the report of the Special Rapporteur on human rights, the human rights situation in Cambodia continues to be one of a repression of political rights. The opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), is still banned and its former President remains in detention. The report recognises that the Ministry of the Interior has revoked the law requiring civil society organisations to provide three days’ notice of any activities; however, the Special Rapporteur had received many reports stating that subnational local-level authorities were turning up uninvited to events and meetings, taking photographs, enquiring about organisers and the agenda, or demanding information on participants. Gatherings in public areas to mark International Women’s Day and International Human Rights Day have consistently been denied in at least four provinces. The Special Rapporteur urged application of the Law on Peaceful Demonstration, the normalization of peaceful gatherings and thus the strengthening of civil society participation, enabling marginalised or vulnerable groups to be heard.36


This article was produced by the Cambodia Indigenous Peoples Alliance (CIPA). CIPA is an alliance of Indigenous communities and peoples’ organisations, associations and networks.

Katrine Gro Friborg is a researcher, working on Indigenous knowledge, deforestation, food security and ethnobotanical relations.


This article is part of the 34th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is from the Peruvian Amazon inside the Wampis territory, taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2020 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here

Notes and references

  1. There are different estimates of how many groups there are because different writers perceive linguistic boundaries differently, f. past editions of The Indigenous World, as well “Indigenous Groups in Cambodia 2014: An Updated Situation” by Frédéric Bourdier (published by Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact).
  2. United Nations Human Rights (UNCHR) Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination reviews report of Cambodia, asks about nationality, land grabs and civic space. 29 November 2019: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/ Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=25372&LangID=E
  3. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) “Concluding observations on the combined fourteenth to seventeenth reports of Cambodia.”. 12 December 2019. Accessed 23 December 2019: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/ Treaties/CERD/Shared%20Documents/KHM/INT_CERD_COC_KHM_40808_E. pdf
  4. International Labour “Up-to-date Conventions and Protocols not ratified by Cambodia”. Accessed 23 December 2019: https://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:11210:0::NO::P11210_COUNTRY_ID:103055
  5. Universal Periodic ”UPR Responses to recommendations and voluntary pledges, Cambodia.” 2014. Accessed 29 December 2019: https://www.uprinfo. org/sites/default/files/document/cambodia/session_18_-_january_2014/ recommendations_and_pledges_cambodia_2014.pdf
  6. Kijewski, Leonie “Observers: Cambodian Government Tightened Grip on Power in 2019”. 30 December 2019: https://www.voanews.com/east-asia-pacific/ observers-cambodian-government-tightened-grip-power-2019
  7. Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Defenders (IPHRD) Network “Cambodia: Investigate Land Activist’s ‘Disappearance’.” 20 March Accessed 17 December 2019: https://iphrdefenders.net/cambodia-investigate-land- activists-disappearance/
  8. Hak, S., McAndrew, J., Neef, A. (2018). “Impact of Government Policies and Corporate Land Grabs on Indigenous People’s Access to Common Lands and Livelihood Resilience in Northeast Cambodia” Land 2018, 7, 122; doi:10.3390/ land7040122
  9. Minority Rights. “Cambodia Indigenous Peoples.” Accessed 23 December https://minorityrights.org/minorities/indigenous-peoples-8/
  10. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination “Combined fourteenth to seventeenth periodic reports submitted by Cambodia under article 9 of the Convention, due in 2012”. 15 November Accessed 20 December 2019: https://www.ecoi.net/en/file/ local/2012521/G1834198.pdf
  11. Open development Cambodia. Registered indigenous communal land. Accessed 23 December 2019: https://data.opendevelopmentcambodia.net/ en/dataset/registered-indigenous-communal-land/resource/ad186575-e436- 4a12-a01c-90353261719d
  12. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Report on Cambodia Accessed 23 December 2019: http://anyflip.com/hralr/ztds/
  13. Kim, S., Sohn, H., Kim, M., Lee, H. (2018). Analysis of the Relationship among Flood Severity, Precipitation, and Deforestation in the Tonle Sap Lake Area, Cambodia Using Multi-Sensor Approach. KSCE Journal of Civil Engineering (2019) 23(3):1330-1340.
  14. Ministry of Environment (Cambodia); United Nation Development Programme (UNDP). Building resilience: The future for rural livelihoods in the face of climate change, Cambodia Human Development Report
  15. Tatarski, Michael “As Cambodia swelters, climate-change suspicion falls on deforestation”. Mongabay, 17 June 2019: https://news.mongabay.com/2019/06/ as-cambodia-swelters-climate-change-suspicion-falls-on-deforestation/
  16. Seiff, Abby “At a Cambodian Lake, a Climate Crisis Unfolds”. The New York Times, 30 September 2019: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/30/opinion/ tonle-sap-cambodia-climate.html.
  17. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations. The State of the World’s Forests 2018. Accessed 19 February 2020: http://www.fao.org/state-of- forests/en/
  18. Keeton-Olsen, Danielle “Cambodia’s Climate Change Risks, and Emissions, Are ” VOD News, 17 September 2019: https://vodenglish.news/cambodias- climate-change-risks-and-emissions-are-rising/
  19. Royal Government of Cambodia. Cambodian Sustainable Development Goals, Framework (2016-2030). Accessed 19 February 2020: https:// opendevelopmentmekong.net/dataset/3aacd312-3b1e-429c-ac1e-33b90949607d/resource/d340c835-e705-40a4-8fb3-66f957670072/ download/csdg_framework_2016-2030_english_last_final-1.pdf
  20. RFA’s Khmer Service. “Cambodian Army Backs Business Group in Land Dispute, Defying Government Order”. Radio Free Asia, 6 March 2019 https://www.rfa.org/english/news/cambodia/army-03062019164901. html?searchterm:utf8:ustring=%20indigenous%20cambodia
  21. Human Rights Watch. ”Cambodia: Investigate Land Activist’s ‘Disappearance’.” 20 March, 2019: https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/03/20/cambodia-investigate- land-activists-disappearance?fbclid=IwAR1opRhNZRZneXzOcIbXpHWd41XHrj5 4ofk4kYlVuX-LxmAGkFG5y1t4VPI
  22. Hüls Dyrmose, A,. Turreira-García, Nerea., Theilade I., Meilby, H. “Economic importance of oleoresin (Dipterocarpus. alatus) to forest-adjacent households in Cambodia” The Journal of the Siam Society (2017) 62(1):67-84
  23. Turreira Garcia, N, Meilby, , Brofeldt, S., Argyriou, D. & Theilade, I. “Who wants to save the forest? Characterizing community-led monitoring in Prey Lang, Cambodia” Environmental Management. (2018) 61, 6, s. 1019-1030 12 s.
  24. Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) “The status of Prey Lang. 7th Monitoring” June Accessed 21 December 2019: https://preylang.net/wp- content/uploads/2019/01/7th-Monitoring-Report.pdf
  25. Dasgupta, “Illegal logging persists in Cambodia’s Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary: Report.” Mongabay, 20 November 2019: https://news.mongabay. com/2019/11/illegal-logging-persists-in-cambodias-prey-lang-wildlife- sanctuary-report/
  26. Forest crime 2018-2019. Forest Plundering in Prey Lang and Prey Roka Wildlife Sanctuary Operated by Sam Oeun Sovan Co., Ltd and Think Biotech (Cambodia) , Ltd Under An umbrella of Angkor Plywood Co., Ltd (in print, 2019)
  27. “Plundering Cambodia’s Forests”. Al Jazeera, 1 August 2019: https://www.com/programmes/101east/2019/08/plundering-cambodia- forests-190801092717099.html
  28. Dara, Voun. “Minister Sam Al calls for probe into illegal Prey Lang ” Phnom Penh Post, 13 October 2019: https://www.phnompenhpost.com/ national/minister-sam-al-calls-probe-illegal-prey-lang-logging
  29. Compliance Advisor Ombudsman. “Cambodia / VEIL II-01/Ratanakiri ” Last updated 2 July 2019. Accessed 22 December 2019: http://www.cao- ombudsman.org/cases/case_detail.aspx?id=212
  30. Inclusive Development International. “Cambodian Indigenous communities win back their sacred land from Vietnamese rubber developer”. 26 March https://www.inclusivedevelopment.net/cambodian-indigenous-communities- win-back-their-sacred-land-from-vietnamese-rubber-developer/
  31. Narin, Sun. “Land Returns After Complaint to World Bank Offer Hope to Indigenous Villagers.” 5 August 2019, Voice of Cambodia. Accessed 23 December 2019: https://www.voacambodia.com/a/land-returns-after- complaint-to-world-bank-offer-hope-to-indigenous-villagers/5029333.html
  32. Thomas Reuters. “Cambodia returns land taken from indigenous people in ‘unprecedented’ move”. TRT World, 27 March Accessed 23 December 2019: http://www.trtworld.com/asia/cambodia-returns-land-taken-from- indigenous-people-in-unprecedented-move-25296
  33. Russell, Martin.” ‘Everything but Arms’: The case of Cambodia”. European Parliamentary Research Service. April Accessed 25 December 2019: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/ATAG/2019/637931/EPRS_ ATA%282019%29637931_EN.pdf
  34. RFA’s Khmer Service. “Top EU Envoy Urges Cambodia to Open Political Space With Two Months to Go on Trade Decision”. Radio Free Asia, 16 December 2019: https://www.rfa.org/english/news/cambodia/envoy-12162019162956.html
  35. CEDAW report ” Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women Concluding observations on the sixth periodic report of Cambodia”. 18 March 2019. Accessed 26 December 2019: http:// undocs.org/en/CEDAW/C/KHM/Q/6
  36. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia “Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General, Situation of human rights in Cambodia.” 27 August 2019.


Tags: Land rights, Climate, Human rights



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