Not even bullets can stop indigenous people defending their land

Sal Hnok holds a shell casing from a bullet fired at him when he insisted workers stop clear cutting the forest near his village in northern Cambodia
Sal Hnok holds a shell casing from a bullet fired at him when he insisted workers stop clear cutting the forest near his village in northern Cambodia. Photo: Savann Oeurm/Oxfam

Sal Hnok is 60, married, and a father of five children. Like most ethnic Kachok people in northern Cambodia, he is a subsistence farmer accustomed to rotating his rice and vegetable fields around forest areas near his village. Local indigenous people derive several economic benefits from the forest, gathering wild fruit, honey, wood, and resin for making lacquer.

When Hnok and some others discovered a crew working for a Vietnamese company called Hoan Ang Gia Lai (HAGL) who were tearing down the forest he told them to stop, “I said to them, ‘you can’t clear this land and forest.’”

The workers, who were clearing the forest to make way for a rubber plantation, told Hnok and others that their company had a legal concession from the government to carry out the forest clearing. The concession spans more than 122,000 acres (94,000 hectares), affecting 17 villages.

After this first encounter, Hnok and 37 others took down the tents the company staff were using. He says security guards opened fire on him and others. He contacted the local police, but when they arrived “the company asked the police to arrest myself, a village chief, and two community representatives because they accused us of destroying the company’s property and mobilizing villagers to strike,” Hnok says.

Hnok and his neighbors were released after local rights organizations, including Oxfam partner, the Highlander Association, intervened.

Hnok continued to appeal to local authorities but none of them seemed interested. It is not just his livelihood that depends on the forest, he explains why the forest is so important to him and his community, “the Kachok worship their ancestors in their nearby spirit forest. You can’t clear the forest,” he says. “It is the identity of our people.”

Training to defend their land

Hnok and others in his community were given training in their local language by Oxfam’s partner, the Highlander Association to help them better defend their land. They learned more about their rights and right to communal land as indigenous people in Cambodia’s law.  They also worked to improve their critical thinking, community organization, and negotiation skills.

After the training, Hnok and several others were selected to represent the community in talks with the company.By this time the company had already cleared an entire mountainside near Kanat Thom village.

To stop the company, Hnok and others from similarly affected villages filed a complaint International Finance Corporation (IFC), part of the World Bank. Mong Vichet, program manager at the Highland Association, says “we learned that HAGL was financed by the IFC through an intermediary, Dragon Capital.  We shared this information with the affected communities and advised them to gather detailed maps of their villages to file with the complaint.”

Armed with information from the communities, fifteen villages including Kanat Thom submitted a complaint to the IFC’s  Compliance Advisor Ombudsman. Later, representatives from eleven of the communities met with the IFC and HAGL. The company agreed ensure better demarcation of land where it has concession and to  compensate villagers whose land was wrongly cleared.

Although the agreement may doesn’t bring back their lost forest the communities are still celebrating their victory, knowing that their rights are being upheld and respected.

 “My hope is that our community will be strong,” Hnok says. “I want my effort to defend the lands and forests of the indigenous communities in Ratanakiri to serve as an example for the next generation.”