As Cambodia continues its rapid economic growth, the steady increase in economic land concessions, and particularly mining concessions, has often created tensions between companies that hold these concessions and local communities. This is especially true in the remote northeastern areas of the country, where most of the villages comprise indigenous peoples. And for these indigenous communities, whose lives for generations have been tied to the surrounding forests for economic sustenance and to their traditional social and religious practices, mining operations often cause disruptions and even pose significant threats to their daily lives.
After receiving a 30-year concession from the Cambodian government in 2016, an Indian-owned mining firm Mesco Gold (Cambodia) Ltd, began underground gold mining operations in northeast Ratanak Kiri province, near Peak Village, in Yatung Commune, O’yado District Nearly all of the residents of Peak Village come from the ethnic Jarai indigenous community. As soon as mining operations began, the residents of Peak Village became concerned about the negative effects that these underground operations were having on their daily lives. These included disruptions of traditional indigenous farming practices in the neighboring forest, negative impacts on the quality of the water supply, and the loud noise from the excavation machinery that was affecting the tranquility of their village.
Highlanders Association (HA), a sub-grantee of the Cambodia Civil Society Strengthening (CCSS) project, implemented by EWMI, is a community-based organization based in Ratanak Kiri province that works with indigenous communities to strengthen their sense of empowerment and their capacity to use, manage, and conserve their lands, forests and other resources so as to sustain and improve their livelihoods and local economies. Even before plans for the Mesco Gold mining project were announced, HA had been working closely with the people of Peak Village by training and raising awareness of community members on human rights and indigenous rights issues.
As a result of the knowledge obtained through these trainings and meetings organized by HA, residents of the Peak Village community were empowered to take proactive steps. On their own, community members took the initiative to meet with Mesco Gold officials to express their concerns about the company’s mining operation near their village. After initially failing to get a response from the company, community members nevertheless continued their efforts. Eventually, community leaders met in Phnom Penh with officials at the Ministry of Mines and Energy (including the minister himself) to discuss their concerns and to provide the ministry with specific evidence of the negative effects that the mining was having on their village. This resulted in the Ministry of Mines and Energy taking action to pressure Mesco Gold to provide specific, tangible benefits to the community as compensation for their ongoing mining activity. After a series of negotiations between Mesco Gold and members of the Peak Village community, it was agreed that a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the company and the village would be drafted. The idea for an MOU came from the villagers themselves, with knowledge obtained from previous HA trainings on indigenous land rights and community empowerment. With HA’s help, the villagers drafted an MOU which was later accepted by the company.
Mesco Gold officials and local authorities, including the O’yado DistrictGgovernor and the Yatung commune chief were invited to a signing ceremony. The MOU was signed by Peak Village community representatives, Mesco Gold officials, the district governor and the commune chief.
Under the terms of the MOU, Mesco Gold promised to build a three-kilometer paved road into Peak Village, along with a 27-meter bridge. After completion of the bridge and paved road, a water pipe system, which would include pipes for running water and sewage would then be installed. In addition, computers would be provided to the local school, as well as English language and computer training for the youth in the village. An action plan to monitor the MOU was also signed by the community people and Mesco Gold officials. The commune councilors also agreed to enforce the company’s agreement with the community people to deliver their promises made in the MOU.
‘Previously we had believed that our purpose was to be the main advocate for indigenous peoples in this area, but now we realize our role is to provide technical and educational support to empower communities, because the real change makers are the communities themselves.’
The success of the efforts of the Peak Village community in their dealings with Mesco Gold was due in large part to effective education, training and empowerment efforts by the HA staff. HA employs a grassroots approach in its work with indigenous communities by providing training to groups of people in each village who work closely with local indigenous community leaders.Known as ‘focal persons,’ and usually consisting of three members from a particular village or community, these individuals are indigenous people who in effect serve as village human rights defenders. Focal persons serve on a volunteer basis and are selected by members of the individual communities.
HA provides training for those focal persons on advocacy strategies and provides opportunities for them to attend national training workshops and conferences on indigenous rights and on other issues relevant to the local communities. Focal persons also share knowledge with their fellow community members on human rights advocacy. Along with sharing their knowledge with fellow community members, they also meet with companies involved in economic concession activities in the area, as well as local authorities and members of other Community Based Organizations (CBOs). In Ratanak Kiri, HA plays an active role in a network of CBOs that deal with land issues, advocacy on behalf of indigenous persons, and issues related to agriculture, gender empowerment, health and education.
According to HA’s Executive Director, Mrs. Dam Chanthy, being involved in the CCSS project has prompted a change in the organization’s program approach. ‘Previously we had believed that our purpose was to be the main advocate for indigenous peoples in this area, but now we realize our role is to provide technical and educational support to empower communities, because the real change makers are the communities themselves.’
Mr. Samoeun Vuthy, HA’s CCSS Project Coordinator, notes that in terms of its internal operations HA has changed the way of working to a standard of practice that was more professional and formal. Working with CCSS partner VBNK on capacity development has improved the skill sets of staff, and has assisted HA in the drafting and implementation of a strategic plan, effective project monitoring, and the formulation of clear, specific project outcomes. All of this has helped to improve the organization’s effectiveness in serving these indigenous communities. Vuthy adds that developing better focused strategic plans has helped HA improve its advocacy strategy, establish clear goals, and helped develop more effective methods in which indigenous communities can help themselves. He also agrees that the CCSS project has changed HA’s program approach. Previously it was focused on the national level. Now the organization realizes that change must come from the grassroots, and the focus is now on training and empowering communities to take actions on their own.
As a CBO led by an indigenous woman, HA is particularly aware of the importance of empowering women from indigenous communities. As part of the CCSS project, indigenous women are taking leading roles as community advocates in land rights and land concession issues, and in negotiating with local authorities and economic concession holders. Of the 125 indigenous community members that are serving as village focal persons, 70 (56%) are women.
Despite the initial success of their efforts to secure community compensation from the Mesco Gold company, the residents of Peak Village acknowledge that significant challenges remain. Although construction of the bridge has already started, construction of the three-kilometer paved road, promised since 2016, has yet to begin, despite repeated assurances by the company. The construction start date has now been re-scheduled for March, 2020.
Residents are also concerned about the cutting of trees in the mining operations, which has affected their religious spirit lands. Numerous holes in the ground from mining excavations in the neighboring forest areas lack warning signs, which presents a danger to villagers and their children. There are also concerns from women members of the community regarding the lack of security while they are collecting wild vegetables in the forest areas near the village and male mine workers are working unsupervised nearby. With regards to computers, the company so far has only provided one computer for the village school. English teachers provided by the company started teaching English to the youth in the village but since February 2020 the classes have stopped. Even while the teaching was going on, it was very sporadic, with irregularly scheduled classes. A community playground for the children and a community garden was also promised by the company, but so far nothing has been built.
Community members now plan to take up these issues directly with officials at Mesco Gold, and if unsuccessful, they will request a meeting with officials at the Ministry of Mines and Energy in Phnom Penh. The ministry has provided the Peak Village community focal persons with the personal telephone numbers of high-ranking ministry officials, and have been told to phone them whenever problems arise with the company’s non-performance of its terms of the MOU. Recently, when there was yet another delay in the construction of the road, villagers telephoned the ministry and within one week, a ministry official came to Peak Village from Phnom Penh to personally meet with villagers and investigate their complaints. Shortly thereafter, the Mesco Gold announced a definite start date for the road construction in the first week of March, 2020. According to one member of the Peak Village community, ‘We have now created a regular contact with high ranking people in the Ministry of Mines. They are listening to us and respond to our complaints. They want to know if the company is doing what they promised us.’
Despite the daunting challenges and the slow progress, the people of the Peak Village community have learned that change does not come without taking the initiative themselves. They have also learned that without constant reminders and pressure from the community, the company will not act on their promises, and no change will come. The training that they have received from HA have given them the confidence and knowledge that will help them effectively lobby for their own interests.As one community focal person put it: ‘Our community has learned that we have to take action ourselves to get the results we want. It is slow it is difficult, but we will keep trying.