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Recognizing Community Rights Supports Wellbeing and Conservation
With support from WCS 14 of 20 villages in and bordering Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary have begun the process of securing communal land titles. Seven villages have successfully secured titles, 4 have completed all legal requirements and are awaiting receipt of their titles, 3 are in various stages of the titling process, and 6 have asked for WCS help to get started. The time required to secure a title has fallen from 9 years to about 5. Villages with secure title have successfully repelled outside attempts to appropriate parts of the forest for conversion to other land uses
The Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary (KSWS) is located in eastern Cambodia, on the border with Vietnam, and covers 2,930 km2 of diptocarp forest. Prior to being designated as a Biodiversity Conservation Area in 2002, it was a logging concession with no recognition of the land and resource rights of traditional communities living within the area. The KSWS is managed by Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment with the technical and financial support of WCS. Wildlife Sanctuaries like Keo Seima, under Cambodian law are designed to protect wildlife and ensure the livelihoods of indigenous ethnic minorities. These twin objectives reflect official recognition that the future of Cambodia’s wildlife and its indigenous peoples are closely linked. Asian elephants, orange-necked partridges, black-shanked douc langurs, and yellow-cheeked Crested Gibbons are among the endangered species that depend on the integrity of KSWS’s ecosystems, which in turn depend on the wellbeing and stewardship of the people living in and around the protected area. Some 21,000 people live inside or on the border of KSWS. Within the reserve 95% are Bunong, an indigenous ethnic minority who historically have depended on a combination of subsistence farming, and hunting and gathering forest products. In the areas bordering KSWS, about half the people are Bunong or Stieng (another ethnic minority, closely related to the Bunong culturally and linguistically), while the other half consists of Khmer people. Khmer people account for about 90% of Cambodia’s total population of around 15.2 million, and historically their livelihood strategies have been based on intensive rice farming. The wellbeing and cultural identities of people living in and around KSWS are at risk because outsiders are increasingly encroaching on their lands and illegally extracting wildlife, timber and other products from the forest. Traditional communities in Cambodia are particularly vulnerable because, historically, they have not had formally recognized title to their land and resources. To support local communities’ legitimate claims over their traditional territories, strengthen their defense of these claims, and sustain their effective stewardship of the forest, WCS and our government and NGO partners (Development and Partnership in Action – DPA, My Village Organization – MVI and Elephant Livelihoods Initiative Environment – E.L.I.E.) have actively encouraged communities to secure legal communal titles to their lands. Securing formal land title in Cambodia is complicate. Andong Kraloeng, the first KSWS village that WCS helped to secure a communal title, began the process in 2003, and finally was awarded its title in 2012. At that time, it was only the third village in Cambodia to receive a communal land title. Key milestones in the process included completing and beginning to implement its participatory land use plan, in 2005, and registering as a legal entity eligible to receive a title, in 2007. Fortunately, communities do not have to complete the titling process to enjoy an increase in their ability to resist encroachment and incursions, because they can begin to take collective action to protect their land and resources as soon as they have completed their participatory land use plans. With WCS support, traditional communities in Cambodia are securing their rights, and protecting their forest for the benefit of themselves, their children and all the plants and animals that are part of the forest ecosystem.
Unlike individual titles, communal title requires that the sale or transfer of lands can only happen with the agreement of the whole community. This raises an effective barrier to developers that seek to divide communities by applying pressure on individuals to sell land. This is important to the communities we work with, because each is fully aware that they are stronger when their members come together and pool their time and resources to fight illegal encroachment and resource extraction through the court system. Communal land titles include by-laws and land-use plans that are designed and agreed up by community members to promote sustainable use of the land within the title, and make sure that land and resource use decisions are both fair and will benefit all members now and in the future. Communal titles provide much needed security for traditional families. But, securing a title is not easy. The process requires villages to a) undertake a complicated set of steps to document their claims, b) complete land use plans verified as satisfactory by the government, c) attain recognition by the government as an indigenous group, and d) register as the community as legal entity. These steps involve coordination with three different ministries headquartered in the capital city, Phnom Penh.
WCS is working with traditional communities, the Cambodian government, and partner NGOs, to secure communal land titles in and around Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary. By formally acknowledging the territorial rights of communities, land titles guarantee that village families will continue to have access to forest resources, and strengthens their legal standing to defend their land from encroachment and appropriation by outsiders, and support their role as stewards of forest ecosystems. Despite the challenges, the opportunity to secure formal title over their land claims has motivated 20 of 22 villages in and around the KSWS to seek support from WCS and our partners to undertake the process. Over time, the lessons learned by the villages, their NGO supporters, and government agencies have reduced the time required to complete the process from the 9 years experienced by Andong Kraloeng to an average of about 5 years today.
Traditional activities of Bunong indigenous people during process of ICT/Saly Por ©WCS
Village congress in progress of claiming/Saly Por ©WCS