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Laurel Curtis


​Laurel Curtis

Aggie Law Class of 2019

Building the Rule of Law

Mondulkiri: Land Rights
by ​Laurel Curtis


Cambodia Busra meeting​The Busra community leader briefs Aggie Law students on their community's land rights.   Watch ​a video of the meeting.

The issues in Cambodia concerning land rights and the recognition of the indigenous people by far had the greatest impact on me. Personally speaking, interacting with the indigenous communities tucked away in the mountains of Cambodia was an experience that I won’t soon forget. It put into perspective everything that we had been told by the team at Vishnu Law Group and our readings and writing about community lawyering that were done before we came. It brought the human aspect back into the very serious matter of lawyering on a national level for groups of people who could not represent themselves in the recovery of land that their families have lived on for approximately two thousand years.

Beyond the offensive deforestation rate that is occurring in Cambodia, and after soil erosion, habitat destruction, species extinction, and water pollution, there are also pockets of people whose existence has been altered because their land rights are in serious jeopardy.

Land tenure, land grabbing, and economic concessions were words that we heard in abundance from the time we began talking to groups on the ground in Cambodia. Land tenure is what the indigenous people are seeking. It is essentially land title for the community lands that the indigenous people both live on and live off of.

Because the indigenous people live in a communally-structured society, personal land title is something that goes against their values, and community land title is something that the Cambodian government is not willing to easily give up. The process involved in being granted land tenure is exhausting, expensive, and a true “hot-button” topic here in Cambodia.

The state of government affairs in Cambodia, we are told, is less than desirable. The indigenous people are suffering at the hands of a system that is denying them the power to get land title. For the indigenous people, the trick to getting land — and boy is it truly tricky — is to be recognized as a community by the Cambodian government. No one can have land tenure if they are not recognized.

While in the small Busra commune of elders in the mountains of Mondulkiri province, a home of the Bunong people, I learned that not only are the Bunong well aware that the government is making them jump through flaming hoops to get recognition, they are aware that they — specifically as indigenous people — have rights that are being violated. The government is not resistant to giving them land tenure per se, it is resistant to giving them power. When indigenous people become recognized by the government they gain a say in what happens to them, their lands, and their communities. The government and the people do not seem to see eye-to-eye on a lot of issues, particularly those concerning land use.

These communities are not only fighting against the government to gain title, they are fighting against private outside entities who are “land grabbing.” Land grabbing in Cambodia is particularly aggressive because the people who are living on and using the land have no title, there is nothing they can do about squatters. This is one of the more serious issues that we saw firsthand.

Right in the middle of Bunong lands in the protected forests of Cambodia that border Vietnam, we visited an area where an outsider has come in, clear-cut the land with big machines, and put in a pepper plantation. Hundreds of hectares were lost to someone that the local people could not identify. This entity decided that the land of a commune of indigenous people located in a protected forest was the perfect place to put a pepper plantation, and because the government has taken so long to recognize the Bunong people and grant their land tenure, there are no actions ​the Bunong can take to prevent the destruction. They would face prosecution if they took actions to defend their land on their own terms, and the people just want to gain their land tenure in peace.

There is no opposition to land development by the indigenous groups, but they want to have the right to be consulted about things that other people or entities want to do to, or on, their land. For instance, the road being cut through their land to Vietnam has encroached on one of the Bunong burial grounds. It is only feet from the road! Had the commune had the power to say where the road should go, it probably would have only been moved closer to the fields and further from the bodies of their ancestors and community members.

That kind of respect for land seemed so obvious to me when I arrived, that to see the true ramifications of a lack of tenure firsthand gave me a new perspective. Law does not exist in a vacuum.

The global community has become so interconnected that the coffee plantation that we walked along in the Busra commune may have its beans sold internationally. A place where the Bunong people’s land rights are being violated, and for which they are paid about one dollar per kilo of coffee bean, are being sold for anywhere between ten and twenty dollars per kilo. So, for every two pounds of coffee bean, the Busra people make a dollar, while someone else walks away with the rest because the people do not have the recognition or the resources to get a better price for what they do.

Land tenure may not seem connected to the issue of coffee prices, but when a company can grab such valuable land from a commune and put its own flourishing coffee plantation on it, and retain that money it paid to the Bunong without consequence, why would it not?.

This Cambodian hot topic is a sensitive one that is being approached from environmental angles, human rights angles, and even the private business angle. Dean Morriss would be proud to hear that what was learned by reading the novels during our first year Property class would be so applicable to the trip to Cambodia. Land rights are an essential part of modern society, and without tenure, one cannot expect to have those rights respected or enforced.

In a society recovering from almost utter destruction such a short time ago, the progress that has been made in Cambodia is nothing short of astounding, but it still has a long way to go. Anyone interested in seeing the true development and overhaul of a legal and governmental system should really consider making the trip.

Lastly, I need to complete the request that was made of the students who traveled to see the Bunong Elders in the Busra commune. They asked nothing more than that we raise awareness of the issues of the indigenous people of Cambodia. Land rights are taken for granted in many places around the world, but for those people who have been living on the same land for so long they are a life-force that is being denied. Often times awareness is everything.

If you would like to know more, or are interested in getting involved, please contact the ​Global ​Programs staff at Texas A&M University School of Law for more information.

Cambodia Mondulkiri Dak DamDak Dam community leader explains his community's connection to the land.
Sara Vargus in forest in MondulkiriAggie Law student Sara Vargas in the forest of Mondulkiri Province.
Cambodia forest in Mondulkiri​Brian Rohan ​of Vishnu Law Group introducing land use issues to Cambodia Global Law Field Trip students.
Cambodia rubber treesAggie Law students visited a rubber tree plantation with Brian Rohan and members of the Young Eco Ambassadors.
Cambodia Mondulkiri planningVishnu Law Group project leader indicates the geographical separation between the related forest communities of Busra and Dak Dam.
Cambodia Mondulkiri briefingThe Aggie Law group receives an overview of the Vishnu Law Group work and land conservation work in Mondulkiri Province.
Cambodia Mondulkiri Busra giftTexas A&M Law Associate Dean for Global Programs Charlotte Ku, one of the faculty leaders of the Global Law Field Trip course to Cambodia, presents a gift to the Busra community leader.
Fruit plantation Mondulkiri CambodiaVisiting land cultivated by the Busra community.